Achieving financial transparency is one of the most important things that the Catholic Church can do to prevent abuse of all types, including sexual abuse. However, for many of us — particularly those not expert in financial matters — it can seem like an issue too far removed from our experience to influence.
Moreover, many have inherited a sense that Church leadership should never be questioned. But examining the numerous cases of abuse in the Church clearly demonstrates that we must do better and take up our responsibility as faithful Catholics. Many of the abuses were enabled by a culture in which the laity did not question clergy in positions of power or was not informed enough to know that certain business practices were wrong.
In order to rebuild our Church, we must all work together to better educate ourselves and to implement best practices that protect everyone involved.
Here are five things that you can do today to support a culture of transparency and accountability in the Church. While some of these recommendations are rooted in U.S.-centric examples, the principles apply universally:
1. Ask your parish and diocese to publish audited financials
Your diocese is a legally recognized non-profit. In the United States, this tax-exempt status designates it a 501(c)3 organization. As such your diocese is required to have an annual financial audit. Unlike other 501(c)3s, religious organizations are not required to publish their financial audits. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so. In fact, some dioceses do publish their audited financials. Most dioceses publish a financial report. Generally, this is not the same as audited financials. Your parish probably doesn’t do regular audits given the cost. But its financials can and should be reviewed by an independent accounting expert. If you are able, you could even offer to cover the costs of a parish audit. Perhaps this could be a priority set by the finance council.
Where feasible for a diocese or parish, an audit by a reputable accounting firm gives assurances of a sound accounting process and sufficient financial controls. For smaller dioceses or parishes that cannot afford an audit, accounting firms offer the option of a financial review. A financial review analyzes the same accounting processes and financial controls, but the scrutiny level, and thus the assurance of the accountant’s opinion, is less. At minimum, the Canonical Finance Officer of the local diocese should annually review the practices and procedures of each entity within the diocese and issue some sort of report to the local Ordinary and the lay faithful membership of that parish, school, or charitable organization.
2. Ask your diocese and parish to publish minutes of financial council meetings
According to canon law, every diocese (n. 492) and parish (n. 537) must have a finance council. Canon law does not restrict the publication of the minutes of these meetings, therefore every diocese and parish should be able to publish its minutes so that the faithful can be aware of the issues and decisions at each finance council meeting, whether it’s the diocesan finance council or the parish council. By advancing financial transparency, you will be promoting your local community and the unity of the local Church.
3. Make sure you get receipts
Every time you make a donation to Catholic organizations, including your parish and diocese, be sure you get a receipt that entitles you to claim the donation as tax-exempt. Generally, these are given at the end of the year or right after. Keep in mind that giving a cash gift to your priest friend most likely does not count as a tax-deductible donation.
4. Consider making financial a contribution to management education for Church leaders
In seminary and in their early priestly formation, most of our priests and bishops did not receive the financial and management education that their positions require of them. By the time they are in these positions, they frequently lack the time to get the training that would make their jobs easier and free them up to provide the pastoral services that only a priest can offer. Our flagship Program of Church Management (PCM) in Rome offers a yearlong certificate course for those who are already living in Rome. You might check with your Bishop or Vocations Director to see if there are priests from your diocese currently studying or working in Rome. This program meets once a week to teach the hard skills necessary to manage Church organizations. PCM also offers intensive courses of one to two weeks at least twice a year. We hope to resume that schedule in April or May, as the COVID pandemic recedes. Additionally, if you have a group of priests or bishops coming to Rome, a specialized executive training session could be arranged. Going forward, we plan to partner with institutions around the world to offer the PCM certificate program in many locations. The current covid pandemic slowed down formalizations of the first partnerships. At the same time, the financial crisis indicates that we will need PCM programs even more since better management will be required of fewer resources.
5. Pray for your pastor, priests, bishop, and diocese
As I mentioned above, most of our clergy do not have the formal training to do the management and financial oversight tasks required for the positions they hold, even if that simply means knowing how to hire the best qualified lay experts. However, I’ve seen countless bishops and priests continue to dedicate themselves to these tasks, with little support, and frequently receiving little gratitude. The current global pandemic has made evident how many dedicated pastors, priests, and bishops have continued to do whatever is necessary to meet the needs of the faithful. They need our prayers and our continued support. If we’re not seeing the response that we want from them, they clearly even more in need of the support of our prayers.
Every Day a Little
St. Josemaría Escrivá once advised that to become holy it must be our constant task to “Reform. Every day a little.” So too with building a transparent and accountable Church. Few of us are called to enact sweeping reforms, but most of us can still take small steps where we are. In doing so, each of us helps to create a stronger Church.