For those of us who have seen the church we love struggle with ongoing scandal over the last decade and a half, the news that emerged from the Diocese of Santa Rosa last week is yet another chapter in a long sad story of trusted clerics—and lay people too—betraying the trust the faithful.
Santa Rosa is not the worst example of financial malfeasance uncovered in the last few weeks. That prize goes to the outrageous robbery of resources from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, by its Bishop Michael Bransfield. Yet the theft of parish collections on the other side of the country, by Pastor Oscar Diaz of Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa, illustrates yet again the need for lay vigilance.
We read these stories of financial wrongdoing regularly now, and this may cause some to think we are losing ground in the battle for accountability within the church. But learning the truth is never the problem. Silence is the enemy of reform, not bad news. Silence perpetuated both the sexual and financial the wrongdoing that has plagued the church and all of human society for millennia. We are learning about these crimes now because the leadership of the church has lost the will and the ability to cover them up. That is good news.
The Santa Rosa theft, while similar to so many we have heard in the past, has one promising constituent that we hope can be repeated when thefts surface elsewhere.
In this case, despite clear specifications from the diocese about the proper way to handle weekly collections, when Fr. Diaz was injured in an accident the police found in his car six tamper-evident security bags filled with cash donated by the parishioners of Resurrection Parish. Diaz told police the money was his salary. It was not, of course.
So often under circumstances like these, diocesan leaders close ranks and refuse to acknowledge the wrongdoing. They keep parishioners in the dark as long as possible. They do their best to avoid any press coverage of the incident. Some bishops have even invoked their authority under the so-called Corporation Sole, a common form of diocesan governance in the U.S., to keep law enforcement out of the picture. Because the bishop essentially owns all the resources of the diocese under this form of governance, if he chooses after the fact to allow the pastor to keep bags of parish money in his car or a $10,000 stack of cash in his room at the rectory, no theft has occurred.
But the actions taken by Bishop Robert Vasa when he learned about the accident may be a new twist on the old story. He has dealt with the injured priest and his parishioners in an open and straightforward way. Of course, the story is still unfolding, but it is unfolding in the open. Time will tell if Bishop Vasa has really chosen a different path, but there are some indications that he is open to greater transparency and accountability with regard to diocesan finances.
When Voice of the Faithful carried out its 2018 Financial Transparency Review, Santa Rosa was the only diocese to publish highlights of the meetings of its Diocesan Finance Council (DFC). The DFC is the only part of diocesan governance where lay members are authorized by Canon Law to exercise authority (Canon 493, Canon 1277). The deliberations of the DFC are treated as secret by most U.S. bishops, but Santa Rosa shares some information about DFC activities on its diocesan website.
Santa Rosa also posts guidelines on its website concerning handling and counting of collections. The collections are to be kept in tamper-evident security bags and the bags are to be in the stewardship of two unrelated persons when not in a locked safe. It is clear that these guidelines were not followed at Resurrection Parish. Were parish staff and members of the count teams not aware of the requirements? Were they reluctant to challenge a popular pastor when he ignored those requirements?
The situation at Resurrection Parish shines a spotlight on the difference between transparency and accountability. The diocese has made the requirements clear, which is the key element of transparency. Accountability is a separate matter and means that those who ignore requirements must be held to account. Fr. Diaz is living proof that a parish priest can ignore diocesan requirements as long as he keeps a low enough profile.
So, how can a pastor like Fr. Diaz be held to account? Lay members of the parish must speak up when they see violations of accepted procedures for safe handling of money. And not just for financial matters but also if they see that criminal record checks on parish volunteers are omitted, that guidelines to ensure children are not put in dangerous situations are ignored, and so on.
Parishioners must speak to the pastor about such lapses, and to the bishop if the pastor does not make necessary changes. The bishop must ensure that posted requirements are followed. Real positive change in the church will require genuine accountability and we all have a role to play in making that happen.
Could what happened in Santa Rosa happen in your own parish? Do parishioners know what your diocese requires for safe handling of collections? Do those requirements follow guidelines set for responsible financial collection practices? You may want to take the Parish Financial Integrity Quotient test found on the VOTF website at Parish F-IQ to learn more about protecting the financial resources of your parish.