Bishops and Bribes

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 07, 2020

As a minor public official in the little town where we live, I am required each January to re-read a summary of conflict-of-interest laws in Massachusetts, and sign a statement indicating that I understand them. So every year I am officially reminded that I cannot participate in a zoning decision involving property that abuts my own, and I cannot accept employment with a firm that needs my board’s approval for a development project. Above all—first and foremost—I am reminded that I cannot solicit or accept gifts because of my official position.

Maybe you have great confidence in my integrity. Maybe you believe that I could render a fair and impartial judgment, even after having been handed an envelope full of cash. But some people are suspicious, and the government of Massachusetts drives home the message that the appearance of impropriety is itself impropriety. So I don’t accept cash gifts (not that any have been offered).

But in recent weeks we have learned about Catholic bishops who lavished gifts on Church officials whose decisions could influence their ecclesiastical careers. Former cardinal Ted McCarrick gave $600,000 to ranking prelates. Bishop Michael Bransfield spread around another $350,000. That’s nearly $1 million in gifts—cash gifts—provided by two prelates who are now living in disgrace, to other prelates who remain in good standing.

When he investigated the spending (and other misconduct) by Bishop Bransfield, Archbishop William Lori chose not to list the bishops who had received those cash gifts, explaining that he saw no evidence the funds had been used inappropriately. We’re still waiting for the Vatican’s long-overdue report on McCarrick’s career, but one recipient of Uncle Ted’s largesse, Cardinal James Harvey, seemed to speak for most Vatican officials when he said: “It never occurred to me that this would be in some way improper.”

Ordinary public officials know it’s inappropriate to accept large cash gifts from people whose future prospects might depend on their decisions. Apparently Catholic bishops don’t recognize that impropriety. They should.

Would you like to convince me that Catholic bishops adhere to higher moral standards than venal politicians? Unfortunately, nothing that I have observed in the past twenty years or so would support that theory. But even if it were true, prudent officials—whether of church or state—should recognize the wisdom of avoiding temptation.

And if bishops are wrong to indulge themselves with personal “slush fund” accounts, wealthy donors are equally wrong to provide the funding. Why should a bishop (or any pastor) have the authority to spend large sums at his own discretion, without any oversight or accountability? The system of unsupervised personal spending, of cash donations given and received, is an invitation to corruption.

To restore public trust, bishops and donors should agree that:

  • The bishop should give a public accounting of his spending. All his spending; no “off-books” accounts allowed. No one should begrudge the bishop the money he needs for a haircut, a round of golf, or a birthday dinner. But if his restaurant bills soar into the tens of thousands, or his expenses for alcohol exceed the costs of his groceries, those warning signs should not pass unnoticed.
  • Apart from minor personal expenses, the bishop’s money is not really his money. He is steward for the resources of his diocese. Do the people of the diocese want a new pool for the bishop’s residence? Do they want to make a $10,000 gift to the papal nuncio? If not, those expenses are not justified.
  • Donations should be earmarked for particular purposes—the more specific, the better. Of course individuals should be allowed to contribute toward the general operating expenses of the diocese. But all such funds received should be accounted for in detail. Unrestricted cash gifts should not be solicited or accepted.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: leticia.cadiz4543 - Jan. 09, 2020 2:52 AM ET USA

    Amen....it is about time the clergy (entire hierarchy) should have accountability for all the funds entrusted to the diocese. It is sad to note that many consider their supposed vocations like a job with monetary compensation.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 09, 2020 12:15 AM ET USA

    Bishops are naturally expected to be nothing less than Christ like Shepherds. And bribes, a.k.a. unaccounted cash "donations," generate exclusive cliques of mutual promotions and cover ups. Bad examples abound.

  • Posted by: charles.pullin6847 - Jan. 08, 2020 9:02 AM ET USA

    I propose taking your suggestions a step further. Not only should the spending of the bishop be public, but all diocesan spending should as well (perhaps a litigation exception would be warranted). The State of Ohio has an online checkbook where the public can search all government disbursements. I believe all non-profits, most especially our Church, should adopt the same practice. Sunshine cleanses, just as the Light of the world cleanses our souls. Will any bishop do this? I will help.