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Meditation 533
Where's the accountability?

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I laughed yesterday when I read that two Catholic priests were being charged with grand larceny for skimming the collection plate in their Florida parish for a number of years, and using the money on gambling, women, vacations, real estate (including a pub in Ireland), and booze. I can't get all sanctimonious about it; after all, I have admitted that one of the reasons I don't accept donations is that the money would probably not be spent on upgrading this website, but on whisky and women.

What this does show is that clergy are as subject to falling into temptation as the rest of us.

What initially surprised me is that they apparently were not working together. One was the parish priest for a number of years, and when he retired, he was replaced by another priest who continued the practice. What are the chances that one thief would be replaced by another? And apparently there are indications the second one had been doing the same at his previous parish.

What really shocked me was the amount involved. Over eight million dollars! While the diversion of funds took place over perhaps 40 years, it is still a lot of money to go missing without anyone noticing. It has to be a relatively small proportion of total donations if no-one noticed what was going on. For all the cries of poverty we hear from various churches, I wonder how much money really gets funneled into them. Probably tens of billions of dollars[1], with no public accountability.

Churches in most countries get tax exempt status. In addition, they get to give out receipts for donations which gives the donors tax deductions. This means all of us pay higher taxes to offset the forgone tax revenue. We indirectly financially support religious organizations whether we agree with them or not.

Realistically, fighting to eliminate the special tax status of churches (and mosques, synagogues, temples, etc.) is a non-starter. But, surely, there should be complete public accountability for how churches manage their tax exempt funds. In return for their tax status, religious organizations should be required by law to publish their audited financial records in detail; income, expenditures, and assets should be part of the public record. The churches would benefit as fraud of this nature would be significantly more difficult. Donors would benefit by being able to assess whether their money was being used effectively.

We all financially support churches through the tax system; we are all entitled to know. And if any church objects to making its finances public, it should be free to give up its tax exemptions.


  1. I found an estimate of $240 billion annually given to charity and churches in the USA, but not a breakdown