My Son's School (The Catholic Right, Fifty-two in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 03:57:58 PM EST
This past January, my wife and I learned that The Diocese of Brooklyn-Queens plans to close St. Finbar, where my son attends Catholic elementary school, in June. Among the factors to its closing, the one that stands out to me is the Church's refusal to be accountable over the most basic matters of integrity and concern for the safety and well being of Catholic families. This, combined with distorted doctrinal and political priorities, are the underlying causes of a declining membership, and the hemorrhaging of Church funds.
St. Finbar's is a parish with Catholic school located in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Throughout its history it has provided students from Pre-K through the eighth grade with a Catholic elementary school education. In recent years it had smaller class sizes (my son's second grade class has five other students besides him). But we didn't mind because it kept him on his toes while providing him with a lot of personal attention from the teacher.

The parish has been known for its open-mindedness. Its priests spoke in favor of fair treatment for gays and lesbians, and of emphasized the Catholic social justice tradition of Dorothy Day's over the neoconservative bloviations of such reactionary bullies as George Weigel and Michael Novak. For obvious reasons, it was a good fit for my family.

Twenty years ago the Bath Beach section of Bensonhurst where the school is located, was heavily Italian and Jewish with some Irish and Polish families. But since then it has slowly become dominated by Russian and Chinese émigrés. Additionally, there are recent Hispanic newcomers in the area. But many Italian-Americans remain as well.

Citing changing demographics, the Diocese plans to close the school. But it seems to me that the demographics actually justify keeping the school open: the increasing Hispanic population is overwhelmingly Catholic.  

But if a changing demographic is not the major issue, then what is? Instead it is about money and criminality on the part of some of its leaders. Beyond that it also it is a response to the hierarchy's gross distortions of American politics that hold abortion and homosexuality above and beyond all other matters: In doing so they are making the Catholic Church more akin to their fundamentalist Protestant allies of  the  Religious Right than of any semblance to the Church that most Catholics believe to be true, and many still hope for.

As a recent New York Times story on the state of faith in America illustrates the number of American Catholics are slowly on the decline. As the Times noted:

The percentage of Catholics in the American population has held steady for decades at about 25 percent. But that masks a precipitous decline in native-born Catholics. The proportion has been bolstered by the large influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from Latin America, the survey found.

When the representatives from the diocese announced the school's closing at a parents' meeting, they said that the primary issue was money combined with the changing nature of the neighborhood. The auxiliary bishop said that the Catholics that used to be in Bath Beach are now in Florida, North Carolina and other Sunbelt locations.

But this explanation ignores the fact the steady exodus of the Church's membership can be traced back to the Pope Paul VI's 1968 ban on artificial birth control. It continues to this day in response to the Church's opposition to embryonic stem cell research; and use of abortion and opposition to marriage equality as the primary, if not exclusive litmus test for evaluating candidates for public office. The alienation of the membership is not, of course, limited to such matters.

Let's take a quick look at institutional criminality:  The National Catholic Reporter recently reported that an astounding 85% of Parishes have reported some form of embezzlement. The reporter, Joe Feuerherd observed:

Sacred Heart parishioners and residents of Bath, Pa., were shocked last month when Elizabeth Fields, mayor of the tiny borough, was charged with stealing about $10,000 from the church's Sunday collections. Fields was secretly videotaped in the parish rectory as she allegedly altered the collection tally sheets so the funds she pocketed would not be seen as a shortfall.

The community's stunned reaction is typical, say experts, but theft at the parish and diocesan level is hardly surprising. In fact, it's the norm.

Feuerherd continued with the shocking details:

A whopping 85 percent of U.S. dioceses have detected embezzlement over the past five years, according to Villanova University researchers. "No question about it, it's a large number," said Charles Zech, director of the school's Center for the Study of Church Management and coauthor of the 15-page paper, "Internal Financial Controls in the U.S. Catholic Church," that details the findings. Supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute, Zech and Villanova accounting professor Robert West surveyed 174 diocesan chief financial officers. Seventy-eight responded.

The researchers don't put a precise dollar figure on how much was embezzled, but the range indicates it's significant. In 11 percent of the dioceses at least $500,000 was stolen over the last five years (meaning that a minimum of $4.3 million went missing) while one-third of the dioceses reported thefts of under $50,000. "You can only wonder about those [96] dioceses that didn't respond to our survey," said Zech.

Dishonest church employees and volunteers are the immediate cause, but the heart of the problem lies elsewhere, say the researchers.

"Unlike corporations which provide quarterly financial statements to the SEC and hold quarterly conference calls with outside analysts, the church is subject to almost no recurring outside financial scrutiny," according to the report. Further, while "many dioceses provide parishioners with an annual financial and administrative newsletter, which provides a highly summarized view of the cash flows for the year and the results of social and spiritual programs offered by the diocese -- many other dioceses do neither."

This scenario has played itself out in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois where the independent-minded lay group Call to Action points to the actions Bishop Edward K. Braxton, whose abuses included "...taking money from a charity fund to buy expensive vestments." The abuse has provoked such outrage that CTA reported in a March 14, 2008 press release that diocesan priests have demanded Braxton's resignation.

But the issues are not limited to theft and misappropriations. There was, of course, the recent shell game of moving pedophile priest from one parish to another instead out of the priesthood altogether.  (And the related law suits that have cost the Church hundreds of millions of dollars.)  And we are still in the age where one arrogant bishop evicts nuns from a mansion just so that he can live in it; and the erection of an Opus Dei headquarters recently valued at $42 Million: All money that was needlessly wasted on pomp and abuse.

Then there is also a priesthood that pays more attention to conservative politics than tending to their flocks. One priest recently complained to me about organizations such as Fr, Frank Pavone's Priests for Life's controversial political activities, while noting that there is a serious  shortage of priests, such that everyday Catholics are increasingly denied basic religious attention. There are no longer enough parish priests to visit the sick or help provide assistance to the poor, but Father Frank has time to attend anti-abortion rallies.

But when parents of Catholic school children, such as my wife and I question any of this nonsense, we're fed a red herring: If only the state would provide us with vouchers or tax credits for my son's tuition, everything would be just dandy.

I beg to differ.

If certain members of my Church's hierarchy would direct its treasure and mission towards its flock; lose its single-minded obsession with certain political causes; and make itself more financially accountable -- we would have all the students to fill the classes of St. Finbar's and many other Catholic schools. And beyond that, we would have the money necessary to provide a Catholic education to just about any child who wanted one.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine   Part Forty   Part Forty-one   Part Forty-two   Part Forty-three   Part Forty-four   Part Forty-five   Part Forty-six   Part Forty-seven   Part Forty-eight   Part Forty-nine   Part Fifty   Part Fifty-one

On another note, this disproves Tom Tancredo's paranoid "Mexican Catholic wave" conspiracy theory (which combines both ethnic and religious bigotry in one obnoxious package)  -

"As a recent New York Times story on the state of faith in America illustrates the number of American Catholics are slowly on the decline."

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 04:02:58 PM EST

these neocon traditionalists believe that they are saving the Church.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 08:11:19 PM EST

This is what happens when reason and accountability are removed from faith--abuse. Only involvement by the Church's faithful, one in which they, not the hierarchy become the vehicle for Magisterium will stop this from keep happening.


To all my friends and readers of this column; Happy Easter.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 04:05:38 PM EST


Happy Easter (although I know tomorrow is Palm Sunday!)

I'm sorry to hear that your son's school is closing. This experience appears to be too common with schools and parishes throughout the country, and I fear it will only get worse. Unfortunately, the hierarchy is showing that it appears to be unwilling to listen to or see the lay people in the Church, but we are supposed to listen to them and do what THEY tell us to do. One priest of my acquaintance firmly believes we lay Catholics should cut off all financial contributions, including our weekly collections to our parishes, until the hierarchy starts listening to us.

I read Joe Feuerherd's article, and I am not surprised by his figures. I am aware of at least one parish in our archdiocese (in a town not far from where I live) where a lay worker embezzled over $100K from parish funds. The lay worker was prosecuted, pled guilty, and went to prison. He is also under an order of restitution. There was also an incident a few years ago where the pastor of the largest parish in the archdiocese took money from the parish funds without accounting for it. He got caught by the lay pastoral committee and then retired. The former pastor also had to agree to pay back the money he took.

One side effect of the hierarchy's behavior, the sex scandals and the financial misbehavior is that a lot of young and older Catholics are leaving the Catholic Church for other denominations.  There was a recent study that pointed this out, and also noted that the net numbers of American Catholics haven't dropped because of large scale Hispanic immigration. I am too stubborn to leave, but I take a lot of what the hierarchy says with a grain of salt. I suspect they will continue to lose their credibility with many lay Catholics if they ally themselves with the Catholic Right. If it gets to the point where the hierarchy starts telling those of us who are Democrats that we have to disassociate from the Church, I suspect my religious allegiances won't win.


by khughes1963 on Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 08:30:19 PM EST

I'll tell you Kathy, it was a good healthy sign that the priests actually gathered the courage to demand that an abusive bishop to resign. For me, that is an indication that Catholics are finally reaching a point where instead of walking away, they're digging in and saying "enough!"

Keep the faith and have a Happy Easter.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 01:40:21 PM EST

good accounting practice. Even simple things, like having team counting of offerings (ie, count twice, with different person for each count), would help.

I don't know anyone at St. Stan's in St. Louis, but I bet that part of the appeal of trusteeship is the ability to have parish finances be transparent to the parishioners.

by NancyP on Wed Mar 19, 2008 at 01:55:01 PM EST

My father was a church usher when I was a kid, and I remember he used to count the collection money after Mass with another usher. There were no incidents of missing money, although many years later at this same parish, the priest sold off the marble altarpiece and the money wasn't accounted for.

by khughes1963 on Thu Mar 20, 2008 at 08:36:27 PM EST

Keep up your wonderful work, please!

by nogodsnomasters on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 03:12:21 AM EST
The subject line says it all.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Mar 17, 2008 at 12:52:06 PM EST

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