The Catholic Church in the U.S. is facing another scandal soon after the priest sex abuse crisis as a growing number of clergy embezzlement cases are surfacing. Time magazine (February 26) reports that 85 percent of the 78 U.S. Catholic dioceses responding to a recent survey (from a total of 174 dioceses queried) reported embezzlement cases, with 11 percent having had scandals involving $500,000 or more.
The study, conducted by Charles Zech and Robert West of Villanova University, found that some of the cases did involve laypeople and that priests are often the whistle-blowers. But Zech argues that Catholics, unlike Protestant churches, have a “less transparent” financial apparatus that may encourage priests seeking personal enrichment from the collection basket.
One priest says that the sacrifice of family and sex may become a source of priestly entitlement, and that the low giving rates of Catholics may lead some priests to envy other clergy with more financial resources. There is also a changing dynamic in American parishes; in the past, the priest had a more comfortable lifestyle than his parishioners who were mainly working class; today it is the laity who are often middle or upper class while the priests feel a “nagging sense of diminished stature.”
As with the sex abuse crisis, only a handful of bishops and dioceses have cracked down on these scandals (such as trying to centralize parish bookkeeping), leaving the task mainly to the laity.