College courses seek to protect church tills from embezzlers

Church finances are often overseen by volunteers with little financial experience.

.PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The globe-trotting priest from Connecticut drove a Jaguar, shopped at Bergdorf Goodman and bought jewelry from Cartier, all of it with money stolen from his church’s coffers. By the time the parish finance council caught on, he had embezzled $1.3 million.

Many U.S. churches have been victims of embezzlement over the years, reflecting not just moral weakness on the part of the wrongdoers, but lax financial controls. Often, church budgets are overseen by volunteers or employees with little guidance or professional training.

Now, some colleges are hoping to prevent such faith-shattering abuses by offering programs devoted specifically to managing church finances and personnel.

Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and Boston College started programs in September, and Villanova University outside Philadelphia is offering an online master’s degree in church management beginning this summer.

The concept is becoming more popular despite some among the faithful who bristle at the notion of the church as a business, said Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a Roman Catholic group.

“It is true that the church is not a company, and we respect and acknowledge that,” Robinson said. “But it is comprised of people, finances and facilities. Catholic theology demands that those are managed well – and not just well, but to the highest, exemplary degrees of stewardship.”

Better financial controls might have led to an earlier uncovering of the priest sexual-abuse scandal, said Charles Zech, director of Villanova’s Center for the Study of Church Management. Numerous financial red flags were missed as dioceses and archdioceses quietly settled with victims and paid for treatment for priests.

More than 60 Catholic dioceses responding to a survey by Zech and a colleague reported embezzlements within the past five years. The survey got responses from only about half of those contacted, but 60 amounts to around one-third of the nation’s dioceses. About a half-dozen of the dioceses that responded reported thefts of more than $500,000.

“If folks were better trained in management, a lot of problems that churches face today could have been avoided,” Zech said.

Just last year, the Associated Press found reports of more than 20 churches in 17 states dealing with embezzlement cases. The cases included clergy or church employees who were either charged with, sentenced for, convicted of or pleaded guilty to stealing religious funds.

The frauds involved many denominations, and included a Roman Catholic priest in Virginia who admitted stealing at least $400,000 from his parishioners and a Lutheran youth minister in Pennsylvania charged with embezzling more than $68,000.

Last fall, Boston College – a Catholic school, like Duquesne and Villanova – began offering a master’s in pastoral ministry with a concentration in church management. It also offers dual master’s degrees in ministry and business.

Boston College theology professor Thomas Groome said he became convinced the programs were needed after attending a convocation of clergy and laity a few years ago.

“We were speaking two different languages,” Groome said. “The business people were talking about economies of scale. The bishops and the theologians were talking about the church being a sacrament of God’s reign in the world.”

Jon Jakoblich, one of about nine students in Boston College’s on-campus program, enrolled in hopes of landing a management role in a Catholic parish. Jakoblich, 25, said that he wants to help with strategic planning and leadership, and that this kind of education is necessary “to sustain the long-term health of the church.”

At Villanova, the two-year, part-time master’s program is expected to garner about two dozen applications from Catholics and Protestants alike, Zech said. So far, about half the applicants are clergy. Courses include financial reporting and controls; civil law and church law for church administrators; and personnel management.

The Rev. Frank McGrath, the new pastor at victimized St. John Roman Catholic Church in Darien, Conn., said pastors should receive some administrative training, either at seminaries or from the diocese after being ordained.