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Bankruptcy & Financial Accountability in Our Church

The mere thought of trying to balance my checkbook gives me a headache. So how do I begin to comprehend what it means when a diocese files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from clergy sex-abuse claims?

Even the legal experts don’t know the answer. Last July the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, became the first diocese to file bankruptcy. Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains, “Lots of questions have not yet been explored about how much authority and jurisdiction a bankruptcy court actually can exercise over a Church,” reports Catholic News Service (CNS). The Code of Canon Law states that a diocese holds schools and other property in trust for parishes (Canon #1256), but that may not hold up in civil court.

Portland’s Archbishop John G. Vlazny unexpectedly filed bankruptcy just hours before two sex-abuse trials were to begin, with the plaintiffs seeking a total of $155 million. The archdiocese had already paid $53 million to settle over 100 such claims.

Last February, a report by the National Review Board, established by the bishops, said the responses of many bishops to allegations of abuse “were characterized by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy and neglect,” reports CNS. This board  calls the bishops to greater accountability.

Almost three fourths of the Catholics who responded to an October 2003 survey sponsored by the University of Notre Dame said the failure of bishops to stop the abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself, reports CNS. Most people surveyed think the bishops are still covering up the facts.

A Failing Grade

As an institution, Frederick W. Gluck gave the Catholic Church a failing grade in America (December 1, 2003), a Jesuit magazine. Gluck, former managing partner of a consulting firm, wrote, “There is no effective performance measurement system at any level, which makes constructive change very difficult, if not impossible.”

He calls bishops to “make a strong public commitment to managerial change that will address shortcomings in the administration of the U.S. Church and to an examination, with the full participation of the laity, of the controversial and divisive policy issues that plague the U.S. Church.”

That includes ensuring “financial accountability and transparency in each and every parish and diocese,” he says. Gluck notes that guidelines adopted by the bishops can be ignored.

In a follow-up article (May 17, 2004), Gluck describes how the governance and management of the Church can be improved “without interfering in any way with its spiritual and pastoral mission.” Restructuring begins, he says, with replacing the archaic feudal system in which a diocese is under the total control of a bishop, who is responsible and accountable only to the pope.

Checks and Balances Needed

Father Donald Cozzens, author of the award-winning Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, also compares the structure of the Catholic Church to an obsolete feudal system. One of many contributors to the book Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church, he says, “Such a system is not at all interested in accountability, transparency and systems of checks and balances.” This system “was based on the absolute loyalty of serfs” who “tended to be unthinking and blind.”

He challenges Catholics to “stand as adults taking ownership and responsibility for our Church.” As adult members, he says that we need “to have a love and faith that dares to question, that dares to dream, that dares to speak our truth in love.”

In the same book, Francis J. Butler, president of a consortium of private foundations with interests in Catholicism, says, “It is truly baffling to see the hierarchy collectively embrace a practice or policy when they assemble, and then almost proudly ignore it when they return to their dioceses.”

Butler notes that canon law requires all pastors and bishops to establish finance committees in their parishes and dioceses. But he questions why these and other accountability measures have failed to prevent abuses: “Is it because laypeople, chosen as overseers on financial councils, view these positions as honorary and are failing to ask the kinds of tough questions of dioceses that are necessary?”

No More Pedestals

No doubt some laypeople who donate their time and talent stopped asking tough questions because they were ignored by the clergymen they serve.

But let’s recall that the long-overdue sex-abuse reforms established by our bishops in 2002 were in response to laypeople who were relentless in their questions and demands for justice.

A financial scandal at Good Shepherd Parish in Cincinnati resulted in parishioners making changes, reports The Catholic Telegraph. In August, the archdiocese confirmed that, when he was pastor, Father Thomas Axe mismanaged $271,000 from a discretionary account and spent some of that money on personal expenses. As a result, the parish has made “significant changes in the handling of money, the transparency of its finances and parishioner involvement in decision-making.”

For healing to take place in our Church, we need to discard the pedestals that some of our clergy still struggle to sit atop. Only then will we be able to work cooperatively with leaders who are respectful and respectable.—M.J.D.

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