SIMSBURY – Your money goes into the collection basket during Mass. You write a check to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. You make a bequest of real estate to your parish. How can you know what happens to all that money and property?
More than 80 people wanted to know the answers to these and other questions during a discussion Oct. 25 at St. Mary Parish Center, led by certified public accountant Matthew A. Byrne, fiscal coordinator for external affairs for the Archdiocese of Hartford. The discussion was part of a series on financial transparency and accountability in the Catholic Church, sponsored by the Farmington Valley affiliate of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF).
Finances in every diocese are governed by a Code of Canon Law, Mr. Byrne explained. This code calls for the establishment of a finance council for each diocese. The council’s duties include preparing a diocesan budget, examining the annual report and offering counsel to the bishop on fiscally related items.
Finances at the parish level are governed by the pastor, with guidance from the diocese, Mr. Byrne said.
“The Archbishop is responsible for the Archdiocese. The [pastor] is responsible for the parish,” he said.
As detailed in a book called The Temporal Goods of the Church, which interprets the Code, Mr. Byrne explained, “The goods do not belong to any individual, but are administered by the pastor.” These administrative duties are in addition to the pastor’s roles as preacher and sanctifier, and include managing a budget; keeping up property; paying salaries, insurance and debts; making investments; and doing assessments. A pastor’s role as fiscal administrator often prompts him to recruit lay people to help.
A few other points Mr. Byrne covered included:
Q. What happens when a parish closes or merges with another?
A. The assets revert to the Archbishop, who decides how best to distribute them.
Q. Why do parishes usually become linked rather than merge into a single parish?
A. Merged parishes may present future liability problems because of the properties they administer.
Q. What pitfalls does a parish face when accepting a bequest of real property?
A. The new owner or administrator of real property assumes all liabilities attached to that property.
Differences in accounting methods at the parish level have made it difficult for parish reports to be consolidated at the diocesan level. As a result, Mr. Byrne spearheaded a drive to standardize parish accounting and data management methods.
“Some pastors manage two or three linked parishes,” Mr. Byrne said. “Why have two or three different accounting systems?”
A new, standardized, front-end system was first tested in six parishes and includes a data-base of parishioners, school tuition, payroll and bar-coded offertory envelopes. “We feel this is the future for parishes,” Mr. Byrne said. “We have this in about 25 parishes now.”
The research for the new system was funded by the Archdiocese. A parish’s up-front cost to convert to the system is about $2,500 plus equipment, if needed.
During the discussion period, a parishioner asked about retirement funding for priests. Mr. Byrne said the pension “is almost 100 percent fully funded” in a separate trust. Administrators meet twice a year to set funding for contributions. “It is in very good shape,” Mr. Byrne said.
Asked about the availability of a publicly disclosed summary of fiscal accountability at the archdiocesan level, Mr. Byrne said, “That day will come. We’re not there yet.” An independent audit is conducted annually, however, he said.
The second in the two-part discussion series on financial transparency and accountability in the Catholic Church featured Jack McCarthy, a retired partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Mr. McCarthy chaired the effort to produce the financial transparency report by the Archdiocese of Boston. He discussed the challenges of communicating the complex issues in that report in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and parish closings.