Voice of the Faithful group rates dioceses on the role and effectiveness of their finance councils

US currency $100 bills are seen in this photo. (CNS Photo/Lee ​​Jae-Won, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Before Voice of the Faithful prepared a report on diocesan financial advice, it informed dioceses that it would be working on such a report and what it would look for when visiting diocesan websites.

The Massachusetts-based organization sent letters to diocesan bishops and financial directors of the 176 American Latin Rite dioceses.

Despite the advance notice, only 18 of the 176 dioceses scored 60 percent or higher — what the Voice of the Faithful considered a passing grade when it released the July 13 report.

Voice of the Faithful said the low scores lent credence to its assertion that while dioceses had followed canon 1277 of the Code of Canon Law with regard to obtaining “consent” from their finance councils for “extraordinary” payments to survivors of clergy abuse, the “scandal and sin and disease of child abuse probably would not have persisted as long as they did,” the report states.

The Diocesan Financial Councils article was the Voice of the Faithful’s first online review of the composition of diocesan financial councils and their compliance with canon law as represented on diocesan websites.

This review is for the group’s annual online Diocesan Financial Transparency Reviews, which are now in their fifth year.

Voice of the Faithful, which was created in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal that engulfed the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, said the role of finance councils was critical to a diocese’s financial competence and to greater financial transparency.

“Lay involvement would have been beneficial for financial transparency,” he said, “and the bishops could have avoided criticism for covering up the scandal with secret payments to survivors.”

“We are very focused on diocesan financial advice because, according to canon law, this is an area where lay people in dioceses actually have a say in serious decisions being made,” said Margaret Roylance, vice president of Voice of the Faithful, at Catholic News Service. Telephone interview of July 25.

“So many dioceses, even those that do good on financial transparency, make no mention of diocesan financial advice,” Roylance said. “It’s another question of transparency, but the transparency of governance.”

The Diocesan Financial Council, or DFC, she added, “can be thought of as a board of directors or the diocese.”

Two Voice of the Faithful reviewers spent three months, from last October to last January, inspecting diocesan websites using a 10-question worksheet. Seven of the questions directly referenced canon law: in addition to canon 1277, canons 492, 493, 494, and 1287 were referenced in the worksheet, as was the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ publication “Diocesan Financial Management: A Guide to Best Practices”. ”

“Canon law requires that they (DFC members) have expertise in finance and that sort of thing,” Roylance said. “In general, members of the clergy — a priest, etc. — do not have this kind of financial knowledge. So when they publish information about members of diocesan financial councils, you can see if they publish transparently.

The top five rated dioceses and archdioceses in the report were: Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, 95%; Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, 92%; Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, 83%; the Archdiocese of Atlanta, 80%; and the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, 80%.

The two lowest-scoring dioceses were Crookston, Minnesota, and Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which each scored zero. Thirty dioceses obtained 7% and 26 others 10%.

Representatives of the pair of zero-scoring dioceses said they were aiming to do better.

“We are well aware” of the Voice of the Faithful report, said Janelle Gergen, Chancellor of the Diocese of Crookston, as well as “what the criticisms are, and we all hope to take a look at all of this by changing our procedures. reporting”.

Gergen added, “I am sure you are all aware of what has happened in the diocese over the past few years,” referring to the resignation last year of Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner following a a 20-month investigation into charges he mishandled. clergy sexual abuse claims. The new bishop, Andrew H. Cozzens, was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who “scored 60 out of 100,” in the report, she noted.

“Lay participation in the finance council is really important to Bishop Cozzens and he has increased lay participation in the diocesan finance council,” Gergen said.

“Over the past year, our Diocesan Finance Office – in conjunction with the Bishop (Mark L. Barchak, installed last year), the Diocesan Finance Council and an external accounting firm – has been subject to a thorough review of all financial activities and an assessment of the future reporting structure,” Tony DeGol, communications secretary for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said in a July 28 statement emailed to CNS. .

“The finance office plans to roll out this new reporting structure in the near future,” DeGol added. “The goal of our diocesan financial office is to provide 100% transparency of all financial activities that take place in our diocese and to make information available in a format understandable to all.”

The Voice of the Faithful worksheet asked if a diocese’s website had a working internet search function; whether contact details of PLC members have been posted; the availability of up-to-date DFC member information on the website; DFC member terms of service; the nature of DFC membership; whether agendas or highlights of DFC meetings have been posted; whether any meeting information posted indicates that the bishop or his representative is attending the meetings; whether the DFC was responsible for preparing the diocesan budget; and if there was a diocesan financial review at the end of the year.

He also asked if any “acts of extraordinary administration” had been performed. Code 1277 of the Code of Canon Law defines them as the acceptance of onerous gifts, long-term loans; guarantees given for loans contracted by third parties; enter into contracts of purchase or sale; and the acquisition of real estate, the value of which in each case exceeds 1 million Swiss francs (approximately $1.05 million at current exchange rates).

Eight of the questions were worth 10 points each. The question on the nature of DFC membership was worth 15 points; whether the bishop or his representative attended the meeting was worth five points.

The worst average scores were recorded for contact information for DFC members, and whether agendas or highlights of DFC meetings were posted on the diocesan website. Each of them averaged a score of less than 1.0 across the 176 websites searched.

The highest average score was for whether the website had a functional search function, with dioceses scoring an average of 9.0 out of a possible 10.

“Our assumption is that the website is the public face of the diocese,” said Roylance of Voice of the Faithful. “If the leaders of the diocese want the information to be accessible to their members, public, it will be on the website. Each reviewer goes through each website to determine if the information is there or not.

Although scores from so many dioceses are low, Voice of the Faithful is not playing a trap game, according to Roylance.

“This is the first time that we have provided diocesan financial advice. We’ll have to see how their response pans out, but I’m hopeful they’ll understand we’re trying to help,” he said. “We are trying to further the good of the church by doing this.”

In releasing its report, Voice of the Faithful hoped dioceses would improve their scores on their finance council, noting that in response to the group’s diocesan financial transparency reviews, “most dioceses have increased their scores.”

When Voice of the Faithful began criticizing diocesan financial transparency, “I’m not sure they knew what to make of us,” Roylance told CNS. “Our goal has always been to improve transparency.”

Donors and potential donors also want to make sure their money is well spent, she added.

There is, however, an advantage to all reports and scoring.

“We are independent. If we look at their website and say they get 100% transparency, the diocese can go to their members and say, “We got a high score of 100%. They have become much more receptive and understand that we are trying to help the church,” Roylance said, adding that despite low scores in 2022, they have actually improved since Voice of the Faithful’s first transparency review. diocesan finance.

Sara H. Byrd