A new study of the finances of America's Roman Catholic dioceses finds that, when it comes to openness, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend lands in the bottom half of the ecclesiastical units.
The ranking, the study's authors say, should be “certainly cause for concern” by people in the pews, according to “Measuring and Ranking Diocesan Online Financial Transparency” done by Voice of the Faithful, a laity-led church reform group.
“Absent clear and accessible financial reports ... the donated funds are more susceptible to fraudulent diversions,” the study concludes. “Every Catholic shares in the responsibility to ensure that funds donated for church work actually go toward those purposes.”
But a spokeswoman for the local diocese said the study's concerns may be misplaced because of steps the diocese takes to provide financial information to members.
Conducted last summer and published last month, the study comes at a time when the handling of finances by churches is under increased scrutiny from those within and outside sanctuary walls.
Prompting concern are reports of embezzlement and lavish lifestyles by leaders and changing expectations about openness from church members, according to The Church Transparency Project website at www.churchtransparency.org.
Church members want to think pastors and fellow members have good morals and will do the right thing when it comes to money, said Ron Bleke, finance executive for the Fort Wayne-based Northern Indiana District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
“Church people want to trust,” he said, “(but) the church is not exempt from things happening in the world, of course.”
In focusing on financial transparency, Voice of the Faithful's leaders said they are following the lead of Pope Francis, who has expressed dismay about financial irregularities and is reportedly working to correct them at the top levels of church administration.
The group, which has as its motto, “Keep the Faith. Change the Church,” formed as part of laity reaction to Roman Catholicism's sexual abuse scandals of recent decades and aims to support victims and faithful priests and increase lay people's role in church governance.
The finance study is the first of its kind for the group, spokesman Nick Ingala said.
The study looked at all 145 dioceses and 32 archdioceses in the United States. Researchers developed 10 criteria about financial transparency. They then looked at what was disclosed on diocese websites before making determinations about the ease of accessing financial information.
Websites were chosen as a measuring tool because most dioceses have them and they are widely viewed as the public face of many kinds of organizations, including churches, Ingala said. Websites also are easily accessed by church members and the public, he said.
No diocese or archdiocese received a perfect score. The average score by dioceses was 36 out of a possible 60. The median score – with half of dioceses scoring above it and half below – was 37.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, which covers 14 counties in northern Indiana, scored 34.
The local diocese got the highest score possible on six questions but scored zero on two that study authors called “the heart of the review.”
The diocese was downgraded for not posting audited financial statements or referring website users to financial statements in other formats, such as a printed booklet, according to the study.
The diocese also scored zero on another question because it does not list members of its finance council and their qualifications online, the authors said.
However, Stephanie Patka, diocesan spokeswoman, said it appears some conclusions are in error.
She said they are based on website navigation issues rather than any deliberate withholding or hiding of information.
Simply typing “finance” or “finances” in the diocese's website's search engine at www.diocesefwsb.org does not produce any results. However, audited financial statements from last year and 2016 are available at the site. But they must be accessed by searching for “Business Office” and clicking on prompts at the bottom of a list.
“I think what it (the study) says is more of a function of the design efficiency of websites than a reflection of what dioceses think (about accountability and transparency),” Patka said.
“Could it (the local diocese's search engine functioning) be streamlined? Well, yes, but I think we already are transparent. But if we need to adjust the search engine, that is something we can look at.”
Ingala said the financial statements may not have been online last summer when the study's information was gathered. A check of a website that stores snapshots of website content does not show the financial information as late as October, the most recent snapshot available.
However, the information, which was previously published in Today's Catholic, the diocesan weekly newspaper, could have been online at a different location. That could not be readily determined last week.
The online financial reports list finance council members, but no other information about them. That is a lapse, study authors said, because church law requires at least three members with financial or legal experience be appointed by the bishop.
Patka said besides being published in Today's Catholic, copies of the diocese's financial reports are mailed to members. The diocese also publishes financial information about the annual Bishop's Appeal and a local Catholic funding foundation online.
Financial fraud policies are also published online.
Bleke said many congregations and denominations do not take the steps recommended by Voice of the Faithful. Financial disclosure procedures vary widely, he said – depending on congregational size, budget, rules, technological savvy and denominational and congregational rules.
Some religious bodies don't do independent audits because they are expensive, Bleke said. However, the local Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod District has been encouraging professional financial reviews by someone not connected to a particular congregation to prevent conflicts of interest, he added.
According to the Church Transparency Project, some religious bodies disclose finances to some members but not others, or to members but not to the public. Some use websites, some don't. Some use limited-access, password-protected websites.
“Many studies have shown that churchgoers want similar transparency from churches as from (nonprofit) organizations that file public documents with government entities, and that congregants at churches that are more transparent give more,” the transparency project's website states.
Ingala said if financial records were recently posted, that shows the diocese is moving in the direction of transparency and would get better marks in this year's survey. He said the changes would not be difficult to make.
Among those in the study, the Diocese of Sacramento received the highest score, 59 out of 60. The lowest score, 10, was shared by the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, and the dioceses of Brownsville, Texas; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Camden, New Jersey.
Patka said she believes Voice of the Faithful's study comes from “a sincere desire to hold parishes accountable because they care so much” and want financially responsible ministries.
“I think we can all agree that transparency is important,” she said.