Lay Catholics Must Be More Attentive to Financial Abuse

Lay Catholics Must Be More Attentive to Financial Abuse {
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Sexual abuse isn’t the only scandal confronting the Catholic Church. There is a growing recognition that financial abuse is more prevalent than most Catholics think. Look no further than the case of the disgraced former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia: Bishop Michael Joseph Bransfield.

Once a little-known leader in the Church, Bishop Bransfield burst into the spotlight last year. A close associate of the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Bransfield suddenly resigned in a cloud of suspicion. The Vatican ordered an investigation into allegations of abuse and misuse of funds. It found that Bransfield lived like a king, not a bishop – in one of the nation’s poorest dioceses, no less.

Bransfield’s tastes were extravagant and his expenditures obscene. They included $4.6 million on a complete home renovation following a small fire in a bathroom; $2.4 million on travel, including luxury hotels and chartered jets; $1,000 a month on alcohol; and daily flower deliveries totaling $182,000, to name a few examples. Whenever anyone raised objections, Bransfield’s response was simple and usually the same: “I own this.”

Bransfield also doled out $350,000 in gifts to other priests and bishops, in an apparent attempt to curry favor and ward off bad press coverage. The investigation’s final report, in addition to detailing the financial scandal, also included accusations from nine individuals alleging sexual abuse or harassment. It appears that Church money wasn’t the only thing Bishop Bransfield grossly misused.

These findings spurred the Vatican to action. Last month, Rome banned Bransfield from exercising any public ministry. He is also prohibited from living in his former diocese. The new bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Mark Brennan retains the right to demand additional penance and amends from his disgraced predecessor, although it remains to be seen if he will do so. 

The Vatican’s actions are a satisfactory conclusion to the Bransfield scandal. Yet some important questions have yet to be answered. Chief among them: How could this have happened in the first place? 

Every Catholic diocese in America has a council – mandated by canon law – that’s supposed to prevent this sort of thing. The so-called “Finance Councils” are composed of lay Catholics (ordinary people who aren’t ordained) with expertise in monetary matters. Usually meeting once a month, these councils pore over the accounts and expenditures of the relevant diocese, faithfully stewarding the Church’s money. Clearly there was a breakdown in Wheeling-Charleston. Finding what went wrong and fixing it essential.

Yet this leads to another question: Are the Finance Councils in other dioceses doing their due diligence, too? Is the Bransfield situation a rarity, or more common than we think?

I ask this as someone who previously served on the Finance Council in the Diocese of Orange. A lawyer and certified public accountant, I have long believed in the necessity of lay involvement and oversight over important Church functions, including finances. Yet my experience also makes me worry that most lay leaders in Finance Councils are not as attentive to the details as they should be.

The members of these Councils have a fiduciary responsibility to the diocese – an obligation to make sure its financial house is in order. Yet as the situation in West Virginia shows, there appears to be too much deference given to priests and bishops. This is a form of clericalism. Undue trust of the hierarchy makes accountability harder, if not impossible.

All members of Finance Councils should remember: Their fiduciary responsibility is to the diocese, not the bishop. More importantly, their faith shouldn’t be in the Church’s leaders, but rather in the Church’s teachings, which they are called to safeguard by preventing financial abuse.

This is true for every Finance Council in America, and not just those at the diocesan level. Individual parishes also have such councils, with the same responsibility. Financial abuse by regular priests also needs to be identified and ended wherever it exists.

Finance Councils at every level need need to renew their focus. If they aren’t meeting regularly – at least once a month – then they need to start doing so. They must retain outside and inside auditors to assure compliance with good governance under current canon law. Each diocese should also make sure it has put the best and most principled people on the Council. They need lay leaders who are both holy and hell-raisers – the kind of people who care about the Church’s health and are willing to fight to keep it healthy.

Finance Councils should also be given additional support through increased transparency. If they published their minutes and discussion topics, other lay Catholics would be able to keep closer tabs on how the Church’s money is being spent. After all, it often used to be their money, given in tithe.

There are surely other ideas that are worth exploring – ideas that could help prevent the Bransfield situation from reappearing anywhere else. As in every other part of Catholic life, lay Catholics are essential to keeping the Church healthy and holy.

We have already seen that lay leadership can help address the Catholic Church’s biggest problems. The lay review boards instituted by the Dallas Charter appear to have nearly eradicated sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The Finance Councils must exert the same kind of influence in the fight against abuse of money. We should strengthen them however we can, because they can strengthen the entire Church. 

Tim Busch is founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay apostolate committed to Church renewal.



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