Every now and again one of my “anti-” religious friends sends me an article of some priest doing wrong. In conversation they are usually polite, but inevitably the link has to do with bad clergy, bad religion, or an atheist insight they guess I’ve never heard.
Recently a nun was charged with embezzling at a local Catholic college.
Of course, I’m always disappointed, frustrated and saddened whenever this happens. Not just because it’s bad for the institution and the individuals who are hurt, but because it affects me.
Whenever a priest or a nun is accused of a crime, of any denomination or tradition, it wears off a little. I become embarrassed and ashamed, even though I did nothing wrong. A conviction of one priest, and we’re all convicted. One accusation, and we’re all accused.
I don’t think that one’s religion or faith has much to do with why or when a crime is committed. It may be that, as churches are fundamentally trust-based institutions- it’s easier to commit crimes without being detected. It’s easier to avoid the normal controls that businesses have.
Plenty of churches operate more responsibly. The Episcopal church, by and large, has systems to encourage churches to monitor their money. The priest in my church, for example, doesn’t count the money – in fact, the entire vestry is trained to do the work instead. We have two, not one, treasurers, so that power isn’t in the hands of one person. My discretionary account isn’t separated from the main account, and is easily tracked by the wardens. Churches are required to have audits.
And when someone gives me cash, I remind them of a simple rule: never give a priest cash. I remind them that the $20 will either sit on my dresser, or be a part of my clergy beer fund, to which I buy rounds of drinks for anyone who joins me.
Priests often feel that they work hard, and are undercompensated. When they are disconnected from their own congregations, they justify to themselves taking a couple dollars here and there. It’s an insidious cycle.
It is one reason dioceses encourage churches to compensate parish priests enough so that they do not have to be stressed, worried or resentful. Nobody becomes rich when they decide to enter the ministry – we are fully aware that we won’t have a Mercedes, send our children to Switzerland for skiing trips, and routinely go to fancy restaurants. It is enough to have a wage that is just, that allows a priest to have a family without being afraid of what the next day brings.
Jesus sacrificed his life, so that we would not have to.