Which Catholic diocese has best financial transparency in Southern California? – San Bernardino Sun

The true wealth of the Roman Catholic Church is impossible to calculate, many have said. Vast land holdings, exquisite art collections, more than a billion members and … the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Here on the home front, though, things can be broken down into simpler pieces. There are 177 dioceses in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including 12 in California, and — in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal — a mighty push to lay their finances bare.

California’s dozen dioceses span the gamut from among the very best in the nation when it comes to financial transparency to among the worst, according to a new report by Voice of the Faithful, a national coalition of everyday Catholics seeking structural change in the Church.

The stars of the transparency show are Stockton, Monterey, San Diego, Santa Rosa and Sacramento, all scoring above 90% on Voice of the Faithful’s annual assessment.

Orange scores in the high 80s, Los Angeles in the low 80s.

San Jose, San Bernardino (which includes Riverside) and Oakland are at or barely above the national average of 70, while San Francisco and Fresno fall well below it.

Plaintiff Esther Miller, 48, an alleged victim of clergy abuse, cries as she comments on the settlement outside Los Angeles Superior Court in 2007 in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Why is this important? “Financial transparency can help address an array of problems that emerged within the Church in recent centuries,” explains Voice of the Faithful. “One is the horror of clergy sexual abuse.”

Had rank-and-file Catholics seen how much the church was spending on lawyers and settlements, there could have been questions asked — and action taken.

“If Catholics had known and had demanded change decades ago, and if the bishops had implemented it, many children could have been spared the devastation that comes in the wake of such abuse,” Voice of the Faithful said in its report. “Some cases of abuse would still have occurred, but the abuse would have been reported, not covered up, and abusers would have been called to account for their crimes. Victims of serial abusers would have been protected.”

Also, those collection baskets can get quite heavy with cash. Financial transparency is a virtue that can guard against diversion of funds by clergy or laity, the organization said.

“Such financial transparency must be one key element of an open response by the Church to survivors of clerical sexual abuse. It will also be essential in rebuilding the trust of U.S. Catholics in our diocesan leadership,” it said.


Simple questions

This is Voice of the Faithful’s sixth assessment of financial clarity for all 177 U.S. dioceses, and it focuses on the public face of any major corporation or organization: its website.

No passes given for “We have that! You can request a hard copy!” — because information not posted and accessible on the website can reasonably be assumed to not be intended for public viewing, the report said.

This isn’t rocket science. Voice of the Faithful is looking for clear and accessible financial reports, certified by audits, as well as properly implemented collection and reporting protocols. There should also be a requirement that tamper-evident bags be used for cash collection, and that three unrelated people should count cash contributions.

Is financial information accessible on the diocesan website from a central page designated as finance, business, accounting or equivalent? All of California’s dioceses got the highest mark here — except for San Francisco, which got zero.

Does the website have a workable internal search function? Yes, all California dioceses did.

Are audited financial statements posted? A perfect score is 25 points. There are 15 points if the posted statement is current (10 if it’s one to two years old, and five if it’s three to four years old). There’s an extra five points if the audit is current and also got an “unqualified” (no concerns!) bill of health from the auditor; and another five points if it’s accessible from the finance page.

Fresno got zero points here. Orange, Oakland, San Jose, Monterey, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Rosa and Stockton clocked a perfect 25 of 25. Los Angeles and San Francisco got 20, while San Bernardino slipped to 15.

(Note: Those unaudited financial summaries some dioceses post are poor substitutes for real audits, “although they can be filled with information, multicolored pie-charts, and good news. Without the auditor’s notes, though, such reports are not much better than PR documents,” the report said.)

Does its Annual Appeal for donations — which provide roughly half of the diocese’s operating revenue —  clearly identify what the money will pay for? Fresno only got five out of 10 points. Everyone else got a perfect score.

Is contact info for finance/accounting staff posted on the website? Two points if at least one name with contact info is posted; three points for more than one person; five points if info is accessible from the finance page. Perfect 10 scores went to Fresno, Los Angeles, Monterey, Oakland, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Rosa, Stockton and Sacramento. Only five points went to San Francisco and San Jose.

Are members of the current Diocesan Finance Council identified? This is the church equivalent of a corporate board of directors, and its job is to keep an eye on spending. Perfect score is 10 — five if the council membership is posted, two if at least three council members are lay folk, two more points if lay folks’ credentials are included, and one more if their service terms are clearly spelled out.

Oakland, Orange and San Bernardino got zero here. Fresno, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Rosa and Stockton got seven. San Diego and San Jose got eight, while Los Angeles and San Francisco got nine.

Are detailed parish collection and counting procedures posted (two points)? Tamper-evident containers required (four points)? Three unrelated counters required (four points)? Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, got zero here. Fresno, Los Angeles and San Bernardino just got two. Monterey, Orange and Santa Rosa got six, so procedures can clearly be tightened on how cash is handled up and down the state.

Only Sacramento, San Diego and Stockton scored perfect 10s.

Working on it

Some websites were in the middle of upgrading and/or redesign when the analysis was done, diocese officials said, so documents weren’t where they’d normally be.

Few were eager to discuss the report’s findings, but the Diocese of Orange said this in a prepared statement:

“The Diocese of Orange is committed to financial transparency. We are proud of our practices, which include publication of financial statements, annually conducting an independent audit, and maintaining an active Finance Council, whose makeup consists primarily of qualified and dedicated lay people. These materials, such as the membership of the Finance Council, can be found on our website, RCBO.org.”

In summary, financial transparency has improved quite a bit over the last few years, but there’s still a ways to go.

“Every Catholic shares in the responsibility to ensure that funds donated for Church work actually go toward those purposes,” Voice of the Faithful said. “Without access to financial reports and information on diocesan finance councils, budgets, and the overall financial health of a diocese, ordinary Catholics cannot exercise their full responsibility of stewardship or verify where their donations to the diocese go.”

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