Friday, March 17, 2023
The Deer's Cry or St Patrick's Breastplate
Parent of transgender student in Enoch Burke row expresses safety concern for their family
A parent of the transgender student who Enoch Burke refused to call by a new name has said they were never told by Wilson’s Hospital School that their child was the one referred to in legal proceedings against the fired teacher.
In an email to the school’s principal in January, the parent said they only learned “the child in question is my child” after reading a court judgment which outlined what year the unidentified student was in.
The parent of this child had never asked to be called by the ‘they’ pronoun, the email to the school states.
Spanish bishop bans EWTN from diocesan television station
A newly installed bishop in Spain has taken the unusual step of banning his local television station from carrying any content produced by the massive EWTN religious media conglomerate on grounds of preserving unity with the pope.
Bishop Fernando Prado Ayuso of San Sebastián, Spain conveyed his decision in a decree dated Dec. 19, 2022, just two days after he was formally installed as bishop of the diocese on Dec. 17, 2022.
“By virtue of the faculties that, as diocesan bishop, I have over the organization of communications media in the diocese and trying to favor the communion of the diocese with the Successor of Peter, I hereby decree that going forward, and until further notice, no content from the EWTN channel will be broadcast in the diocesan television BETANIA,” the decree said.
Betania TV is the formal diocesan media outlet, and regularly produces original programs in addition to featuring syndicated content and broadcasting Prado’s Masses and homilies.
In his decree, Prado asked that his decision be published in the official diocesan bulletin and that a copy be kept in the archive of the secretary general.
Founded in 1981 by Mother Angelica, an American Franciscan nun famous for her feisty sense of humor and direct rebukes of both bishops and so-called “liberal” trends in American Catholicism, EWTN is the largest Catholic media conglomerate in the world, with an international audience of more than 380 million television households in 150 countries and territories throughout the world.
In addition to their television content, EWTN also does their own radio programing and has hundreds of radio affiliates around the world. They also run a newspaper, the National Catholic Register, and an online news agency, the Catholic News Agency, in multiple languages.
EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw is a consultor for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications; however, the network has consistently received backlash for programming critical of Pope Francis and has been criticized for presenting their editorial stance as the only true interpretation of the Catholic faith.
Speaking to fellow Jesuits during his visit to Slovakia in September 2021, Pope Francis said that Catholic media critical of the pope do “the devil’s work,” saying, “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.
Asked by a Jesuit how he handles critics who look at him and his decisions with suspicion, Francis referred to “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope,” and while he didn’t mention any names, the remark was interpreted by many as directed at EWTN.
Later that year, EWTN was criticized by Cardinal Sean O’Malley from Boston, saying both social media and the EWTN network have created a distorted image of Pope Francis in the United States.
Speaking in an interview with Argentine newspaper La Nacion, O’Malley said the United States Bishops’ Conference is polarized, and that “There are also some bishops who are linked to a more conservative policy, and the Holy Father himself has commented on the situation of the EWTN television (a large American Catholic network), where many times the commentators are very critical of the Holy Father, at least of his ideas.”
British Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb in his book, The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church, cited sources who said that Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican envoy to the U.S., had at one point voiced concern to Warsaw over EWTN’s coverage of Pope Francis. In the book, Warsaw admitted to meeting with Pierre about EWTN, but did not disclose what was discussed.
During a speech at a dinner in Rome hosted by EWTN in October of last year, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin stressed the importance for Catholic media of unity with the pope and of avoiding polarization.
“Catholic media, as you well know, has an important role in the task of the new evangelization. This is why it is good that they feel that they are an active part of the life of the Church, first of all by living in a spirit of communion with the Bishop of Rome,” he said.
This sense of communion, Parolin said, “is all the more urgent today in a time marked by overly-dramatic debates, also within the Church, which do not even spare the person and the Magisterium of the Pontiff.”
‘They ruined it all’: What went wrong with the Portuguese abuse commission (Contribution)
After an independent commission set up by the bishops of Portugal issued its final report last month, many Catholics hoped it would mark a new era of transparency and accountability in the Church.
At the time the report was published on Feb. 13, both bishops and the commission had a high degree of public confidence and good will.
But, since the commission delivered its list of individual accused clergy to dioceses earlier this month, both the bishops and the commission have suffered a litany of public relations disasters, eroding public confidence and enraging public opinion against the Church.
After starting with such a highly credible and well received report just one month ago, how did it all go so wrong for the Church in Portugal, so fast?
In 2021 the Portuguese bishops empowered an independent commission to study the extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
In previous years, fewer than two dozen cases had emerged, along with unsubstantiated accusations of cover-ups. A major investigation by an online newspaper in 2017, which included repeated calls for abuse survivors to reach out, produced six features, but only one new case. While many Catholics, and even some bishops, believed — or perhaps hoped — that child sex abuse was essentially an Anglo-Saxon problem, others worried that there might be more to it. The Independent Commission was called to shed some light on this.
The experts were given 10 months to collect testimonies and a group of historians was given a free pass to scour through diocesan archives. The commission chairman, child psychiatrist Pedro Strecht, gave occasional press conferences in which he explained that the testimonies were coming in steadily and that there was indeed a problem that the Church needed to address, but he and other members were always open in their praise of the bishops and their readiness to cooperate. With few exceptions, the bishops reciprocated.
When the results were presented Feb. 13, commission members read out harrowing accounts of abuse and explained that they had received more than 500 testimonies, from which they extrapolated a minimum of 5,000 cases over a 70-year period, though most people agree that the real number is probably far worse.
The report kept all witnesses anonymous and redacted the names of the alleged abusers. But the commission said it would prepare a list of the names of over 100 abusers who were still active in the Church which would be given to the bishops on March 3.
The bishops’ conference called a plenary meeting for that date, to discuss the steps to take next. At that meeting, the commission gave each bishop a sealed envelope with a list. A press conference was called for 6 p.m. and, after weeks of mounting expectations, the press and the public were eager to know what would happen to the suspects who had been named.
The most charitable accounts of what happened next described it as “a trainwreck.”
Bishops were offered media training, but declined.
Media experts who often advise bishops on such issues arrived in Fátima to find the press were being made to wait outside the building in the wind and rain before the conference began, and not in a receptive mood by the time they were let in.
The press conference began with the bishops’ spokesman, Fr. Manuel Barbosa, monotonously reading a long statement, which many attendees found hard to follow and which buried decisions to pay for psychological and medical support for victims, the creation of a new permanent commission to receive future allegations, and a memorial to victims, to be inaugurated during WYD, in long-running paragraphs.
Then came question time, with the microphone passing to Bishop José Ornelas of Leiria-Fátima, who currently heads the bishops’ conference.
Journalists asked what the Church was going to do about the priests on the lists the bishops had just been handed, and received no clear answers. “All we were given was a list of names, with no further information,” Ornelas explained, adding that bishops would have to deal with the issue case-by-case.
“I can’t remove a priest from ministry just because someone comes along and says ‘this man abused somebody’. Who says so? Where? When? Removing somebody from ministry is a very serious thing,” Bishop Ornelas continued, generating a wave of headlines saying “Bishops are not going to suspend suspected abusers.”
The new commission, the promise of psychological support, and all other measures were hardly mentioned. Church critics – from politicians to activists – fumed, and even regular faithful Catholics were shocked by the lack of urgency or a clear plan to deal with abusers potentially still in ministry.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said one seasoned Church communications expert who spoke to The Pillar.
“Instead of just saying that, despite lack of information, the bishops were going to do everything they could to investigate and remove priests who faced credible allegations from active ministry, the bishop highlighted the difficulties and obstacles. The bishops had one year to prepare a response, and they ruined it all with this horrendous press conference.”
The expert, who, like all the bishops, priests, and Catholic figures who spoke to The Pillar, asked not to be named citing the sensitivity of the issue, had little doubt that this is the most severe crisis the Portuguese Church has seen in decades.
“And do you know what the worst is? They didn’t even realize it. When the press conference finished, Bishop Ornelas walked up to a group of acquaintances and commented: ‘Well, that wasn’t too bad, was it?’, while Fr. Barbosa nodded beside him ... It’s as if they are from a different era.”
A layman who heads an important Catholic professional guild offered a perspective that he said is broadly held among Catholic professionals working in Portugal: “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression, and that press conference laid waste to all the capital of goodwill the bishops’ conference had accumulated over these past months.”
As the press, talking heads, and social media exploded in fury at the Church, it seemed like the situation couldn’t get any worse. But on Saturday, journalists caught up with Cardinal Manuel Clemente, who as Patriarch of Lisbon is one of the most important clerics in the country, and asked him if he agreed that the alleged abusers on the lists should not be removed from office while the allegations were investigated. The journalists used the term “suspension” in their questions and the cardinal appeared to miss the point over a technicality.
The Vatican’s most recent instructions say “that the older terminology of suspensio a divinis is still frequently being used to refer to the prohibition of the exercise of ministry imposed on a cleric as a precautionary measure. It is best to avoid this term… since in the current legislation suspension is a penalty, and cannot yet be imposed at this stage. The provision would more properly be called, for example, prohibition from the public exercise of ministry.”
Without explaining the distinction of terms, the patriarch told journalists that “Suspension is a very serious penalty that can only be applied by the Holy See, it’s not something the bishop can do himself,” leaving them to believe he would not temporarily remove suspected abusers from office, even though the Lisbon diocese had already suspended several priests in recent years, including some who were later acquitted.
The headlines were, again, unforgiving: “Manuel Clemente will not suspend priests without proof,” ran the Público, one of Portugal’s leading daily papers.
“The big problem with our Church is that it doesn’t know how to communicate. We can make all the right decisions, and have the best of intentions, but we don’t know how to get it across,” explained a priest who has experience working in the communications department of a large diocese.
Another priest, from a different diocese, told The Pillar that the bishops appeared to be on a mission of self-sabotage:
“They had all the time in the world. It is completely inexcusable. I asked if there was a communications plan and they told me to relax because the bishops’ conference was handling it. What sort of plan did they have? They had nothing.”
In the end, it took five days for the Lisbon diocese to issue a clarification through the more media-savvy auxiliary, Bishop Américo Aguiar, who was left to explain to a press conference the technical difference between “suspension” and “prohibition.”
But by then the situation nationally had already been aggravated further by an interview given by the Bishop of Beja, in which he reminded the nation’s Catholics that we are all sinners, and that even pedophiles could be forgiven. Though he didn’t say it directly, the bishop was widely interpreted as suggesting that if an abuser repented and made some reparations, he could be restored to active duty.
“Until now people’s attitude towards the abuse issue was of disgust at the actions of guilty priests. But with this the mood has changed,” said the Church media expert. “There is absolute fury with the bishops, and it isn’t only coming from the usual critics, it is also coming from within.”
“My only hope is that it has gotten so bad that they will realize that they need to finally do something about it. But to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days a bishop gets physically assaulted in the street. That’s how bad I think it is,” he said.
The bishops’ collective PR meltdown also prompted pointed criticism from the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a practicing Catholic.
“I try not to approach these issues as a Catholic, although if I were speaking as a Catholic, I would be even harsher. As president, what I expected was for there be swift accountability, preventive measures, and reparations. It was simple. Instead, they got everything backward,” he said.
“As president, this worries me, because the Church is a fundamental institution in society, in terms of education, in health, for social unity. The country needs it. And now it has taken a blow to its credibility, on such a basic issue, and that is going to have an effect on people’s lives,” added Rebelo de Sousa.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the independent commission and the bishops also deteriorated, now verging on open hostility. When the bishops complained that all they had been given were names of alleged abusers, with no additional context, the commission members replied that this was untrue and that the dioceses had all the information they needed.
But while public opinion reflexively sided with the commission after repeated episcopal gaffes, the commission itself is now under fire.
The first sign that something wasn’t right came on Saturday, March 4, the day after the press conference.
The Diocese of Funchal, which covers the Madeira archipelago, issued a statement saying that of its list of four names, three no longer held any office in the diocese and the fourth was unknown.
Over the next several days other dioceses began to release similar statements. One had received only two names, both of which were dead. One had died around 60 years ago.
One week after the press conference, 17 of the country’s 21 dioceses had released information regarding their lists. Out of 83 names, 31 were dead, nine were unknown in the diocese, four had already been tried and acquitted, either civilly or canonically, and seven already had canonical or civil cases underway.
Of the 13 who were no longer in active ministry, some were found to be old, retired, or ill, but The Pillar has confirmed that several are no longer active in the priesthood, having been laicized either at their own request or by canonical imposition, and at least one no longer lives in Portugal.
Five of the names were in fact new cases, and were immediately withdrawn from active ministry pending a canonical investigation, and one more had already been withdrawn and was being investigated long before the list was delivered.
The remaining 13 are priests about whom the dioceses of Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra requested further information before taking any preventive measures.
This left many wondering what the commission meant when it said it had delivered each bishop a list of clergy in “active ministry.”
Portugal’s main Catholic media group, Renascença, tried to reach out to commission members to inquire about the lists, but only one member answered - saying she would not comment on the lists.
One day later, however, Ana Nunes de Almeida had a change of heart and explained in a discussion on Twitter that, even though the commission’s president Pedro Strecht had initially stated that only active priests would be named, and this was written in the final report, it had eventually been decided to include all names of accused priests, including of those who were dead or no longer in ministry.
Diocesan offices that The Pillar reached out to insisted that they had no idea there had been a change of plan regarding the lists, and in fact, the only clear reference seems to have been a short answer in a long, paywalled, interview with Ana Nunes de Almeida in the Observador.
Nobody in the commission, it seems, thought it necessary to make the change of policy clear to the press or the wider public, who continued to expect and report that a list of 100-plus alleged abusers who needed to be removed from ministry would be delivered by March 3.
But the problems with the commission could go deeper, according to a source from a religious order who liaised with the commission and the group of historians.
“The group of historians signed a confidentiality agreement, which stipulated that they could use the names of any living suspects, but for legal and accountability reasons they would not divulge the names of dead suspects who are no longer around to defend themselves,” they told The Pillar.
“We had always been told that the dioceses and religious orders would receive lists of living suspects gathered through testimonies and access to archives, so you can imagine our surprise when we realized that they had included the dead in the lists as well.”
But there was more. “The questionnaire that abuse victims were asked to fill in did not have a consent form, they were told that it was all going to be anonymous. However, the commission then included some of the accounts in its report, and even read them aloud during the presentation.,” they said. “Some of these accounts have details that make them quite easy to identify.”
According to the commission liaison, there were several known cases “of people who went to the commission in confidence, and then ended up having their situations revealed to their friends and families.”
“A lot of the methodology used by the commission members was amateurish, yet they have now been criticizing the bishops publicly and refusing to take responsibility for their own mistakes,” they said.
“This had never been done before in Portugal, there were bound to be problems, things that could be improved upon, but they have refused to accept any type of criticism, always taking the moral high ground,” said the source, who nonetheless stressed that the work done overall, and the final commission report, are an important contribution to finally dealing with the issue of sexual abuse in the Church.
Officials close to the process now say that the commission may have been too independent, with few checks on its processes and methods by the bishops, for fear of being seen as interfering. Sources close to the bishops’ conference say the prelates were shocked to open their envelopes and find that there was no information in them besides a name, and sometimes only a first name at that.
In the midst of what is now considered a general PR meltdown by both the bishops and the commission, victims’ advocates are voicing concerns that other abuse survivors will be discouraged from coming forward with their own cases, which would completely defeat the purpose of the whole process.
An abuse victim whose testimony was included in the final report told The Pillar that he would still have spoken to the commission, but that he was very critical of both the bishops and the commission. “All of this has been very difficult for victims. The arguments and contradictions, the mixed messages from the dioceses, the constant presence of the topic in the news cycle, none of that helps us.”
“The bishops should centralize their response and their communication through the conference, and they should invest in hiring media aides. Then they should shut themselves in a room with representatives of the independent commission, and hash things out, for everybody’s sake,” he said.
NY deacon gets 16 years for 'enticing' minors via Grindr
A deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York has been sentenced to 16 years in prison after he admitted to prosecutors that he engaged in sexual acts with minors he met on the hookup app Grindr.
Rogelio Vega, 52, was sentenced March 15, two years after he was arrested in an NYPD sting operation using Grindr.
Vega, who previously served in the Brooklyn diocese’s parish of St. Sebastian, Woodside, pled guilty last September to three counts of “enticing a minor” to engage in sexual acts with him.
Reading the sentence in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday, the judge noted the “especially complex” nature of the case, but said that deterring the sexual exploitation of minors is “one of the most important, most essential tasks of the criminal justice system.”
Vega was arrested in January 2021, after he made contact with an NYPD detective posing as a teenager on Grindr, a location-based app designed to facilitate anonymous sexual encounters between men. He was immediately removed from ministry by the diocese.
The deacon sent a series of graphic and obscene messages and pictures of himself to the detective, whom he believed to be a 14-year-old boy, before arranging to meet in Queens, where he was arrested.
Subsequent searches of Vega’s phone allowed police to identify three underage boys whom Vega had enticed into numerous sexual acts.
Vega’s lawyer told the court that the Vega himself had been a victim of sexual abuse and that rather than sexually abusing his victims “he wishes that he instead spread the gospel to them, is what he said to me.”
The judge in the case highlighted the risks to minors posed by apps like Grindr, noting that one of Vega’s victims, whom he also contacted through Grindr, had clearly identified himself as being 15 years old.
“What obligation do they [the app companies] have to police this?” Judge Eric Komitee said. “If we’re talking broadly here about deterrence, that question seems to me to leap off the page.”
The Grindr app says it does not permit minors to use the platform, and it requires users to input a date of birth while creating a profile. But, beyond a user-supplied date of birth, the app does not require users to prove they are over 18.
In 2021, Dani Pinter, senior legal counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told The Pillar that most companies which own dating and hookup apps “are not doing anything for age verification.”
While technology exists to verify the ages of app users easily, most hookup apps “don't ask for ID for any of the dating apps. I mean, you just check a box or enter a birth date, which you can fake. They don't check,” Pinter said.
“The tech industry writ large, including apps and social media platforms, operate on volume and definitely put profits over people,” she said, but because of loose federal regulations, “they’re not even worried about the consequences.”
The risks of location-based hookup apps being used to facilitate the abuse of minors has been flagged by several academic studies.
In a 2018 Northwestern University study of 14-17 year old males who identify as gay or bisexual, more than half of participants said they used hookup apps for the purposes of meeting partners. Nearly 70% of adolescent participants who said they used such apps did so in order to “meet men in person for sex,” the study concluded.
Fifty-one percent of the adolescent participants endorsed using Grindr, and overall, more than a quarter of the study’s adolescent participants said they had had sex with a partner they met through an app.
In 2021, Jack Turban, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, co-published a paper which argued that location-based hookup apps “facilitate age-discordant sexual relationships between adolescent and adult partners,” which can be harmful to minors.
“Sex with older adults can...lead to other power dynamics that increase the possibility of physical harm and a pressure to conceal that harm.” Turban estimated that about 25% of gay and bisexual adolescent males use location based hookup apps like Grindr. Those apps, Turban said, create “an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids.”
The risk of clerics using apps such as Grindr to facilitate sexual contact with minors, sometimes inadvertently, has been repeatedly raised by a number of cases in recent years.
In 2019, South Carolina priest Fr. Raymond Flores was arrested after exchanging sexually inappropriate photos with a minor. But because the priest believed the minor was actually 18, he was not charged with a crime.
In 2022, a priest in the Diocese of Lansing had his faculties removed after a report that he engaged in sexual activity with a 16-year-old boy whom he met on the hookup app Grindr.
In an especially notorious case, in 2022, Fr. Robert McWilliams of Cleveland died by suicide in prison, soon after he was handed a life sentence after being convicted on federal charges of sex trafficking, child pornography, and sexual exploitation of minors.
McWilliams used location-based hookup apps to arrange commercial sex with a minor, and used more traditional forms of social media, on which he posed as a female in order to entice and exploit minor male victims to send him pornographic images.
Priests using Grindr have found themselves in other legal trouble as well.
A Pennsylvania priest was arrested in 2019 for stealing nearly $100,000 from his parish, some of which was sent to men he met on Grindr.
The use of location-based hookup apps has been documented even among senior-ranking clerics.
After Monsignor Jeff Burrill resigned in July 2021 from his position as general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, The Pillar reported evidence that the priest had regularly used the Grindr app while in his conference position, in which Burrill exercised considerable influence over the Church’s response to numerous sexual misconduct scandals.
And The Pillar also reported that month evidence that during a period of 26 weeks in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted serially occurring hookup or dating app data signals from secured areas and buildings of the Vatican ordinarily inaccessible to tourists and pilgrims.
In response to public attention on hookup app use among clergy, some Church leaders have called for a focus on technology accountability as part of the Church’s response to recent sexual abuse crises.
In May 2022, the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, promulgated a policy which prohibited clerics from the use of hookup apps.
But while some dioceses have issued new norms and guidelines for clergy to combat the risks posed by hook-up app technology, engagement with the subject continues to spark controversy.
Last week, in an essay on the website of First Things magazine, the president of a non-profit called Catholic Laity Clergy for Renewal said his organization had used data analytics to examine patterns in Church life across a range of subjects, including location-based hook-up apps.
“We shared what we learned directly with bishops—without setting any expectations, we made information available to the leaders of the Church,” said CLCR president Jayd Hendricks, a former USCCB official.
“Ignoring the importance and reality of human sexuality and its expression isn’t healthy, and pretending problems aren’t there only stores up worse trouble for everyone, as we have all too painfully learned,” said Hendricks. “It’s not about straight or gay priests… it’s about behavior that harms everyone involved, at some level and in some way, and is a witness against the ministry of the Church.”
Hendricks’ essay was followed by a report in the Washington Post which was broadly critical of CLCR’s work, and claimed that “experts disagree” on whether priests “having a hookup app on [their] phone, engaging in sexual talk on an app or watching people have sex at a bathhouse,” violates the obligation of clerical continence.
The Diocese of Brooklyn has not issued a statement on Vega’s sentencing.
Why priests steal — researchers look to ‘fraud triangle’ in parish life
Priests who steal are often motivated by resentment, envy, and a desire to cover up for other moral lapses, new analysis has found, adding that isolation and weak oversight can contribute to the rationalization of theft through "moral licensing."
But the same analysis concluded that a relatively small number of priests have been caught stealing from parishes, and that the priesthood does not seem to attract fraudsters or financial con artists.
A new scholarly article, “Exploring Embezzlement by Catholic Priests in the United States: A Content Analysis of Cases Since 1963,” documented almost 100 instances of stealing by priests, which have sometimes involved hundreds of thousands stolen.
The study aims to assess financial crimes committed by Catholic priests in light of what researchers call the “fraud triangle” — pressure, opportunity, and rationalization.
“The fraud triangle… has proven a remarkably robust analytical device for the understanding of a broad range of financial deviance,” the report said.
“In the religious arena [it] offers several advantages, beyond the irony of its presence. Anecdotal accounts characterize these entities as reluctant and slow adopters of modern business practices including elementary internal controls.”
Researchers Robert Warren and Timothy J. Fogarty compiled documented financial crimes committed by American Catholic priests in the last six decades. They looked at environmental and personal factors, aiming to understand how parish pastors can be tempted into large-scale theft from their parishes.
“Priests are a highly distinctive occupational group,” the report noted, while explaining that while pressures, opportunities, and rationalizations varied case to case, distinctly clerically Catholic elements were identifiable.
The report was published in the January-June issue of the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting.
Crimes of opportunity
The peer-reviewed scholarship looked at 98 cases of priestly fraud committed between the years 1963 through 2020, but discounted three cases in which the fraud was unrelated to the priests’ ministry.
Of the remaining cases studied, more than 90% of priests were serving in parish ministry at the time of their crimes, in which an average amount of nearly $500,000 was stolen, at a median amount of more than $230,000, over an average period of 6 years.
In all of those cases, the authors wrote, the opportunity to steal was consistent with conditions facing virtually all priests in parish ministry – and not only the ability to steal once, but the opportunity “to successfully continue it through time,” the authors explained.
“Catholic priests would seem to have a strong ability to commit fraud,” the article concluded, noting that “they command local positions of unchallenged authority over cash-generating operations with weak internal controls that would detect or deter the misappropriation of resources. For many, priests also exist as citizens above suspicion for misdeeds such as fraud.”
The analysis found that while priestly fraudsters used a variety of ways to steal, four common ways emerged:
“Taking cash directly from the weekly collection and poor box, coercing vulnerable elderly parishioners (primarily widowed females) to gift money to the parish or to the priest personally under false pretenses, diverting checks payable to the parish into non-parish accounts, and improper reimbursement of personal expenses and using secret bank accounts in the church’s name as a slush fund.”
While some of those methods are created by the realities of priestly life, like the potential to abuse moral and spiritual authority in office, the report noted that others are the result of systemic vulnerabilities in the Church’s internal ordering.
The report noted that canon law “still gives the pastor sole control over the parish assets, even though he is obligated to use it for the good of the parish. Thus, a pastor can unilaterally open bank accounts, disperse funds, and sell assets.”
“Parish councils consisting of volunteer parishioners tend to provide ceremonial oversight, often rubber stamping the acts of a priest who most consider a person beyond suspicion,” the report found, while “hierarchical authorities of the dioceses expect parishes to be self-sustaining or to send money upstream and are not generally the source of structure or discipline.”
As a result of infrequent audits in many dioceses, usually undertaken during a change of parish leadership, “detection is left mostly to happenstance,” the report found, noting that only 29.5% of fraud or theft cases were discovered in the course of a routine diocesan audit or parish-level financial controls.
Nearly half of studied cases came to light as a result of whistleblowers, sting operations, or unrelated law enforcement investigations.
But even while administering parishes presents a target-rich environment for fraud, the report found that the data “does not attest to whether Roman Catholic priests are more or less honest than other groups.”
It added that financial crimes were only committed by a “small fraction of all priests.”
Indeed, the evidence suggests that the priesthood does not attract intentional fraudsters, or those necessarily predisposed to theft. Were that the case, one would expect to see instances of theft arise in the early years of ministry, or begin when the opportunity first presented itself.
Instead, the article said, the cases examined took place later in a priest’s ministry, at an average age of 52 and after an average of more than two decades in ministry.
A key part of the “fraud triangle” used to analyze patterns of theft is the pressure to commit a crime in the first place. Among priests, the report found, “the collected evidence points to few conventional pressures.”
Common drivers of first-time financial crime include sudden material necessity, like the loss of employment or the need to provide for a family’s basic needs — all of which, the report noted, were not present for Catholic priests.
Other kinds of urgent financial necessity did arise in a minority of cases, they found, including gambling debts (8.4% of cases) and, more often, the need for financial resources to cover other moral failings, usually sexual: in nearly 12% of cases, money was taken to support “illicit relationships.”
Among such cases are “a priest in Virginia [who] embezzled $591,000 to support his secret wife and three children; a priest in Connecticut [who] used about $1,000,000 in church funds to pursue romantic relationships with at least three men before abandoning his parish; and a priest in Pennsylvania [who] embezzled at least $32,000 to spend on men he met on a dating website.”
Outside of acute financial needs, the report said, ordinarily a key pressure to steal comes from maintaining a publicly successful lifestyle and the appearance of material success to maintain personal reputation. But, the authors pointed out, the reverse pressure is actually present for Catholics priests, for whom an ostentatious lifestyle could actually detract from their social standing.
Instead, they said, “the incentives to steal could be summed up as a desire to live a life very different from that usually associated with a priest.”
“A recent study found that newly ordained priests were paid between $26,000 and $30,000 depending on their geographic area, with lead priests (pastors) earning between $26,000 and $34,000,” said the article.
“Although the diocesan priest also enjoys a plethora of other benefits including free room and board, health insurance, a car allowance, and a retirement plan, these rates of pay put them barely above minimum wage rates for a job that is quite demanding.”
This, the report said, can lead to some priests experiencing a sense of frustrated entitlement, and even jealousy, when compared to the relative lifestyles of ministers of other religions and even their own parishioners.
“The pressure felt by a priest might be closely associated with the very occupation itself, or more precisely the demands that the role makes upon its incumbents” said the report. “The pressure felt by priests might not be in the nature of a sudden emergency or an unexpected reversal, but instead be the grinding and persistent force of envy.”
More than half of the cases studied showed that priests spent stolen or misappropriated funds “primarily to support a lavish lifestyle.”
“Many of these priests used the ill-gotten gain to support second and third homes,” the study found, while noting that in a handful of cases the priests said they were trying to provide for their own retirement. In one extreme case, a priest in New York City “was caught with a handgun and $50,000 in cash told police it was his ‘401-K plan.’”
‘Not really stealing’
A key factor in the cases studied is the phenomenon of “moral licensing,” or the rationalization of the financial crime by the priest. In many cases, the report said, stealing priests believed that taking parish money, or using it for personal benefit, was justifiable self-compensation for hard work, long hours, or even a more general lack of remuneration or appreciation for other good behavior .
“Those that took money to spend in hedonistic ways and on purely personal pursuits did not tend to profess their entitlement as a general rule,” the report found. “In that priests often see themselves as independent contractors or entrepreneurs, they are more willing to buck the hierarchical authority of their organization in the name of a personal view of what is in the best interests of the clientele.”
“The latter may be a highly occupationally specific fraud rationalization.”
The article also noted that the “‘it’s not really stealing’ rationalization” was explicitly cited by six priests caught stealing, each of whom argued that canon law gave them authority to spend parish funds wherever they wished.
Sometimes that argument worked, the report found. A judge in Arizona dismissed an indictment against a priest who argued that he was canonically allowed to rent a parcel of real property with parish money even without a proper parish purpose.
But the “good purpose” line of reasoning also has “considerable variation,” the authors wrote.
“Two pastors indicated that they maintained secret bank accounts to have more funds available to the parish. For instance, a diocesan priest from Connecticut kept an ‘off the books’ bank account to ensure the parish had enough funds to operate in the summer months when regular church attendance slipped, although doing so had been expressly forbidden by the bishop. During a four-year period, the priest spent $2,000,000 from that account, with $1.7 million going to various legitimate projects for the parish and school.”
“However,” the report noted, “the priest spent the remaining $300,000 to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and maintain an alleged inappropriate relationship with a male friend with whom he maintained an apartment in New York City.”
The report also highlighted that, in a number of cases, stolen and misappropriated parish funds were not actually used for the benefit of the priest who took them.
Of the 95 cases examined, seven of the priests used their ill-gotten gains to support family members or charities in foreign countries: One priest in Wisconsin pocketed parish funds to buy goods sent to the poor in his native Nigeria, a priest in Kansas took cash from the collection plate to take back to Mexico for his family, and priest from Pennsylvania skimmed funds from his parish to support a charity hospital in his native Lebanon.
Crime and punishment
“Opportunity can also be judged by final consequences,” the authors noted, and flagged that even when caught and convicted, “long sentences were the exception rather than the rule,” and in many cases priests faced only internal discipline by Church authorities.
While in each of the 95 cases examined the priest unquestionably stole Church funds, only 58 were actually charged with embezzlement, fraud, or larceny, and almost a third of those who were criminally convicted were subsequently returned to ministry, in some cases even when there were exacerbating factors to the crime:
“A former pastor (and self-described ‘sexaholic’) in Minnesota who embezzled $73,733 to finance his pilgrimages to strip clubs and massage parlors pleaded guilty, served a short stint in the county prison with work release privileges, and was eventually returned to ministry as an assistant pastor,” the report noted, while “a priest in Nevada who served 36 months in federal prison after gambling away $650,000 in parish funds, was transferred to another diocese where he became head of human resources.”
“Opportunity is abetted by the probable awareness that those detected will not be severely punished nor will there be sizable reputational consequences,” the report concluded.
While the report identifies a number of unique aspects to fraud by U.S. Catholic clergy, it also underscores that those are essentially sector-specific iterations of the “fraud triangle” of pressure, opportunity, and rationalization found everywhere.
Although Catholic parish and diocesan structures present a “strong and obvious” opportunity for fraud and theft, and their reliance on the personal trustworthiness of priests can actually increase the risk of stealing and drive down the chances of being caught, the article’s authors stress that priests appear no more likely to succumb to temptation than anyone else, and the kind of long term, high value thefts examined represent a tiny minority of priests..
The article explains that while certain idiosyncrasies of fraud in parish life do emerge from the data, the authors could not claim a predictive model for identifying potential fraudsters.
But the report does highlight that “the pressure felt by a priest [to steal] might be closely associated with the very occupation itself, or more precisely the demands that the role makes upon its incumbents.”
Across cases, whether motivated by the financial gain itself, a need to cover up illicit relationships, or even the conceit that a priest can decide for himself how any and all parish funds are spent, the findings of the report would seem to point to an underlying commonality of isolation, disaffection with ministry, and a disordered relationship with Church structures among clerical financial criminals.
Warren and Fogarty’s findings noted that priests are unique among financial criminals, and that large scale or systematic embezzlement in religious institutions is often under-studied, even while religious institutions often involved considerable amounts of cash accounted for on a basis of personal trust.
In addition to calling for better mechanisms of financial oversight and accountability, the study’s findings highlight the need for ongoing spiritual and personal formation in priests throughout their ministry.
The researchers explained that focusing on Catholic priests presented a unique opportunity for study, both because the Catholic Church is the country’s largest religious denomination, and because it allowed for a study sample with broadly consistent hierarchical and financial policies.