IS THE DIOCESE OF VENICE COOKING THE BOOKS?
Approximately 16 months ago, a group of parishioners of St. Isabel Church wrote an open letter to the parish administration seeking clarification of financial data anomalies that could have indicated a range of difficulties in accounting ranging from simple carelessness to improper diversion of funds. The letter requested a response from the Finance Council and was also submitted to the Diocese as a request for a formal audit of the financial management of the parish.
To date, no response that addresses the issues raised has been received. The finance chair and the parochial vicar at the time did write a response, but the first issue mentioned was their assessment that an open letter was “inappropriate.” None of the specific issues raised were directly or specifically addressed. Following a couple of months of subsequent exchanges seeking to have the issues raised resolved, the Director of Finance of the Diocese finally responded with a letter that essentially stated that all was in order and that the letters seeking clarification “appear to be best characterized by the metaphor, ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre.’” The Director bemoaned the fact that the letters were not factually based. This is ironic, because the objective of the letters was to obtain factual information that might explain the irregularities that were identified which ranged from a few cents to thousands of dollars. The exchange of letters was contemporaneously posted on the Parishioners for Justice website and remains available for anyone wishing to examine the exchange.
In the time since the initial inquiry was submitted, there have been a couple of identifiable changes made in communicating information to the parish. First, the weekly collection tallies are no longer made available in an apparent effort to reduce transparency. A statement of how much has been collected is only supplied annually. Certainly, this eliminates the ability to identify thousands of dollars of discrepancies between what was formerly reported on a weekly basis and what was then reported as an annual sum of those weekly reports. Second, for the last two years, the annual report of parish finances has been printed in the bulletin by the end of September as required by Diocesan policy and as should have been done in the past. The data provided is limited, and seemingly incomplete; but at least the letter of the law is now being fulfilled. Third, the veil of secrecy covering the membership of the parish Finance Council has been lifted as requested, with the names of members now appearing on the cover of the weekly bulletin.
Another outcome from the letters of financial inquiry sent to the parish and the diocese is much more sinister. Some individuals who signed the letter have been removed from the parish list of registered parishioners without their request even though they had not left the parish and were still attending some activities at the parish. Several others were further sanctioned and now face arrest if they set foot on parish grounds. Written notification of this fact was given to two individuals, one in her 80’s and the other in her late 70’s, as they were walking to their cars following a prayer service. At least one other person has been told verbally that the police will be called if he enters parish grounds. Requests to lift the warrants were refused by the office manager and Bishop Frank Dewane’s civil lawyer, so these individuals must leave the island in order to attend church. It cannot be established that the sanctions are direct retribution by the diocese and parish staff for questioning their handling of finances, but the situation is certainly suspicious. There seems to be excessive sensitivity by the diocese and the parish should anyone hint that additional data is needed to confirm that nothing is amiss.
The record of anomalous data and the efforts to suppress honest inquiry and limit access to data as much as possible serve to raise the level of distrust. The Diocese of Venice posts Catholic Faith Appeal Reports on its website approximately weekly for all its parishes. In the past, thousands of dollars of discrepancies between these reports for St. Isabel and what appeared in the weekly bulletin were a cause of concern. Because the parish ceased publishing its weekly data when this concern was raised, the only data available for scrutiny is what the diocese makes public. Admittedly, it is difficult to detect inconsistencies when there is only one source of data. Nevertheless, there are occasional red flags. For example, in the diocesan report of November 19, 2018, the number of households reported as being registered at St. Isabel was decreased from 868 in the preceding week to 634. Although an explanation for this change was requested, none was forthcoming.
Last month, in a report dated September 17, a different anomaly appeared that seemed to infect many parishes, not only St. Isabel. For St. Isabel, the amount collected remained unchanged from August 31 at $150,943.74 when this was indicated as being 95.53% of the parish assessment of $158K. On September 17, this identical amount was stated as being 101.99% of the assessment, which would correspond to an assessment of $148K. The data for the following week was consistent with a return to an assessment of $158K. The initial assessment for St. Isabel for the current year was listed as $148K on February 10, but has been listed as $158K in all subsequent weeks. The calculation of September 17 provides ambiguity as to what assessment is actually being used, although it is stated as $158K. It seems strange that a simple spreadsheet calculation would suddenly revert to an earlier basis. A more plausible explanation might be that there are two sets of books being maintained and the number reported came from the private book. Of course, there is no way of knowing whether this is the case; but the reluctance of the diocese to be transparent in its financial dealings certainly causes one to wonder. At the very least, the Diocese of Venice and the St. Isabel administration have been unable to provide consistently accurate financial data on even the simplest of statements.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no avenue for obtaining clarification on these financial matters. Past requests for information from the appropriate offices have failed to yield any data. Letters on an array of matters written to Bishop Dewane, if answered, sometimes absurdly state that he forgives those who are only asking questions about his failures. At other times, he seems to think that beginning a sentence with the phrase, “In all charity,” allows him to launch any insult he chooses. Indeed, he even tells people to stop writing if they are going to question his behavior or actions. We therefore remain concerned about financial management while hoping that the Diocese of Venice and Bishop Frank Dewane will be forthcoming rather than defensive when questions are raised. Of course, Parishioners for Justice followers will recognize that the financial secrecy and possible misconduct of the diocese and parish administration is only a small part of Bishop Dewane’s leadership that has violated Canon Law, relied on non-disclosure agreements, and been the antithesis of how a bishop is supposed to shepherd his diocese.