Catholic Church faces problem of priest thefts
Financial oversight lacking, critics say
By Tom Feeney
Newhouse News Service
Published December 31, 2004
NEWARK, N.J. – Catholic Church law has required since 1983 that every pastor appoint a committee of lay members to help set spending priorities and manage the parish’s money.
But when Rev. Joseph Hughes was allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from an off-the-books bank account at Holy Cross Parish in Rumson for his own use, he didn’t need to worry about being caught by a finance council looking over his shoulder.
He simply never appointed one.
The Catholic Church has been reeling for two years with revelations about clergy sex abuse.
But critics say the arrest of Hughes last month, the disclosure this month of an investigation involving a former Morris County priest and investigations or trials of at least a dozen other priests nationally suggest the church has not done enough to address another scandal: the theft of parish funds by priests.
“I would guess that there have been many, many more priests that have abused parish finances than ever abused children,” said Maria Cleary, regional coordinator of the reform group Voice of the Faithful in the New Jersey dioceses of Paterson, Newark and Metuchen. “The church has never done enough to stop it.”
In the case of Hughes, authorities in Monmouth County allege he used money raised at golf tournaments and other charitable events to travel, dine and lavish a $57,000 BMW and other gifts on the young man who was the head of maintenance at the parish. Hughes has been free on bail since his arrest last month.
In the Morris County case, the prosecutor confirmed this month his office is investigating charges that Rev. William Naughton misappropriated money from Resurrection Parish in Randolph, where he was pastor for more than a decade. Parishioners say the amount of money is more than $500,000. Naughton has been on administrative leave since the money was found missing in 2001. The Paterson diocese did not report the incident to the prosecutor until just a few months ago.
A 2002 survey by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils put the annual salaries of priests between $15,291 and $18,478, plus benefits. That is less than the clergy make in most other denominations.
Clergy theft is not a uniquely Catholic problem. There are examples of religious leaders in other denominations stealing money donated by their flocks. Nor is church theft a uniquely clerical problem. There are examples in the Catholic Church and elsewhere of lay members who enrich themselves by abusing positions of trust.
But theft by Catholic priests is hardly rare.
Nationally, there were at least a dozen other priests being investigated, charged, tried or sentenced for stealing parish money this year. Some took money from the collection plates; others took it from secret parish bank accounts.
Some, as is alleged with Hughes, did it in the absence of oversight from a finance council; others did it even though a council was in place, as allegedly was the case at Resurrection.
Some were found out after getting caught in other criminal behavior. A Chicago priest was suspended in July after he was caught with a prostitute. Sunday collections shot up once he left the church, arousing suspicions that he had been helping himself. He eventually agreed to repay $1.2 million.
Others were caught only after they aroused the suspicions of parishioners. In Florida, the Palm Beach diocese began an investigation after a parishioner leery about his pastor’s spending habits went through his trash and found receipts and credit card bills.
“Every time people hear about a particular pastor committing fraud, it hurts all pastors and all parishes,” said Charles Zech, a professor at Villanova University who studies economics of religious organizations. “There will always be some folks who will be more reluctant to give money to the church.”
Parish finance councils, which have been required since the church adopted a revised Code of Canon Law in 1983, have not been an effective check on the great financial autonomy Catholic pastors exercise, critics say.
Even though the councils are required by church law, not every parish has one. Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Paterson diocese, which includes Resurrection, estimated that 1 in 4 parishes in that diocese do not have functioning finance councils.