From the collection basket to the bank: Lax practices mean lost money

This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Sin and the Trinity.

These are two elementary points of Catholic theology in the work of Michael W. Ryan, a retired U.S. Postal security specialist, who has spent more than two decades alerting church authorities to fixing accounting lapses in parish collections.

First, sin.

Ryan has focused since 1988 on what he calls the point "between the collection basket and the bank deposit." The resident of Milton, Mass., worked for the postal service in security, and knew from first-hand experience that, even with top-of-the-line procedures in place, there will be at least some postal employees tempted to embezzle.

"It only takes a second to scoop up a bunch of twenties," warns Ryan.

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There are parallels between the neighborhood post office and the local Catholic church. Both deal in cash payments. Both involve people with access to cash. But, says Ryan, "there is much more control over a postal clerk."

Ryan notes that there are people who will steal from the collection basket. (See this newsclip of an usher allegedly robbing a Florida parish.)

They include trusted volunteers and, on occasion, pastors. In Ryan's work, human weakness is always evident, from the hard-pressed father of a family in dire financial straits to those coping with the demons of drug, gambling or sex addictions that require constant payoffs.

"There will always be a percentage who can't resist the temptation of a largely unprotected Sunday collection," says Ryan. "You can't run on the trust system. Faith alone will not cut it."

Second, the Trinity.

If God is one in three persons, it also takes three to do basic parish finance security, says Ryan. Each collection needs to be counted by three unrelated people. Most parishes rely on two: a prescription for disaster, says Ryan, who notes that a dishonest person can act quickly when a partner leaves a room. There is also the temptation to a wink-and-nod conspiracy between two that is much more difficult to pull off when three people are involved.

Ryan has self-published a book, Nonfeasance: The Remarkable Failure of the Catholic Church to Protect Its Primary Source of Income. Since his retirement in 1988, he has written to hundreds of bishops and pastors and offered to run a security program free-of-charge for any parish that would take him up on it.

Progress has been slow.

Few bishops bothered to respond, although some church management groups have promoted best practices. Some dioceses have followed suit.

The Boston archdiocese recently implemented a pilot program involving 50 parishes intended to incorporate some of the best practices in parish collections. The Chicago archdiocese and the Miami archdiocese have also codified similar practices, including in Miami's case, the three-person rule and signed and sealed bags for deposit.

Ryan also joined up with Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed to push church administration on the need for reforms of sex abuse policies and financial accountability. Ryan is now a member of the Voice of the Faithful board and speaks at its conferences promoting the gospel of financial transparency and security.

Still, in too many parishes, says Ryan, "there is little in place and it's largely left to the discretion of the individual pastor." Some parishes still maintain a one-person counting system, often the pastor, a system open to abuse.

No one can tell for sure, but estimates are that Catholic parishes are losing millions each year from the point of the collection basket to the bank deposit. If just five percent of cash collections are pilfered along the way, that could mean as much as $160 million lost each year. Cash donations typically represent about 40 percent of what goes into the basket, says Ryan.

Why wouldn't church officials be quick to implement best practices around Sunday collections?

First, says Ryan, there's the sense that pastors should be allowed to run their own shops the way they please. "This business that Father is always right has to go to the history books," Ryan responds.

Another aspect is that in some parishes that have implemented controls, the collections have gone up suddenly, an indication that there had been long and embarrassing security lapses. In one parish, reported a bishop sympathetic to Ryan, a long-trusted usher left the parish and was never seen again, a case of a trinity of collectors scaring off sin.

Ryan, 79, says he is not going away until best accounting and security practices are a fact-of-life in American parishes.

"I will stay on this issue until this is implemented or I go first," he says.

[Peter Feuerherd reports on parish matters for NCR and teaches journalism and communications at St. John's University, New York.]


Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" is NCRonline's newest blog series, covering life in Catholic parishes across the United States and Canada. The title comes from the words of Pope Francis: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up."

"The Field Hospital" blog will run twice weekly on NCRonline.org along with feature stories and news reports about parish life in the U.S. and Canada. If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris-Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).


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