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US diocesan leaders alarmed by parishes' lack of lay financial oversight

As a grand jury investigates the financial irregularities of one priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn and church officials try to recover $A3.19 million that was improperly spent by another, diocesan leaders acknowledge that as many as one out of five parishes lack the basic lay oversight of finances required by church law.

Even in some parishes that have the oversight panels, which are called parish finance committees, the small groups of parishioners rarely meet, or they serve as a rubber stamp for the pastors who appoint them, church officials say.

Diocesan leaders assert that the finance committees are not intended to act as pastor police and may not have been able to prevent the kinds of problems that surfaced in the two parishes. But they worry that the financial misdeeds may have eroded the trust between parishioners and their priests that, until now, has underpinned the system of financial accountability.

"I could never do my job unless there was a level of trust," said Msgr. John J. Bracken, who as vicar for temporalities oversees diocesan finances. "If there were constant suspicions, it would become us against them."

Trust already has been replaced by confrontation in some parts of a church that has been battered by five months of scandal brought on by accusations of sexual abuse by priests. The role of lay finance committees has drawn increasing attention as the scandal has given new momentum to demands that the people in the pews be given greater say in governing the church a promise held out by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's but, in the eyes of many, one that remains unfulfilled.

"We have to make a real, significant effort to be transparent and accountable," Monsignor Bracken said. "It is the people's money, and we have to be very conscious of how we account for it."

New York Times (registration required)

10 Jul 2002