Time Magazine’s ‘Pilfering Priests’ is a Make-Believe ‘Crisis’

First, take a look at the appalling illustration that accompanies the article in Time magazine this week (February 26, 2007, page 46). In the darkest of colors and tones, a sinister-looking, pasty-faced priest is pictured. As his empty, white eyes furtively peer back towards the viewer, his pale, wiry fingers grip what looks to be a Bible. Paper money is leafing out of the book pages. (I've posted the illustration here.) The artist is Sam Weber. I don't know if he's familiar with the 19th-century anti-Catholic drawings by Thomas Nast or the modern-day, anti-Vatican caricatures by Jack Chick; but I bet both guys would be proud. (By the way, do you think Time would allow the same caricature using a rabbi? I wouldn't think so.)

The article is, "Pilfering Priests," by Tim Padgett. (Online, the title is "When Priests Pilfer.") The heading below the main title warns, "the Catholic Church is facing another crisis: clergy who steal money from their parishes." Interesting. But what are the facts?

To start, Padgett cites four specific cases that have panned out in the last couple of years in which priests have acted deplorably and stole from their parishes. OK. Fair enough. But I don't see a "crisis" yet.

Padgett then turns to a December 2006 study from Villanova University (pdf file), which reported that 85% of the 78 U.S. Catholic dioceses responding to a survey (out of 174 queried) experienced embezzlement cases in the last five years.* Padgett uses this info to elaborate on "the increasing number of clergy getting caught with the hands in the offertory." He then surmises that "priestly arrogance" or a sense of "entitlement" may drive priests to "pick-pocket[] parishioners."

Here's the problem: The Villanova study did not ask who stole the church money (source)! The study also clearly states that in the cases of discovered embezzlement, it was most often the parish priest who was "responsible for detecting the theft"! (To his credit, Padgett notes the latter fact; but why didn't he stop and rethink his premise?) The study says nothing about any "crisis" of priests pilfering money. It also did not even investigate whether embezzlement is a growing problem or not. (The study's actual title is, "Internal Financial Controls in the U.S. Catholic Church.")

In other words, Padgett cites four cases of embezzling priests. He then misuses a study to give the impression that priests are increasingly out of control and relentlessly dipping into the offertory, even though the study says no such thing at all.

Even though one priest stealing from a parish is terrible, Tim Padgett's assertion of a "crisis" in the Catholic Church to be measured alongside the sexual abuse atrocities is flat-out bogus. (The heading to his article in the print edition reads, "Still recovering from the sexual abuse scandal of five years ago, the Catholic Church is facing another crisis: clergy who steal money from their parishes.")

[* - In a blog, a lawyer named Jack Siegel made an important observation regarding the study's figures. I wanted to make the same point, but he worded it well (bold mine): "Some caution is required when reviewing the data. Specifically, the survey was sent to dioceses, which are not specific church parishes. For examples, the Archdiocese of Chicago is comprised of 378 individual parishes. Consequently, the numbers should not be taken to mean that there have been thefts at 85% of the thousands of individual churches making up the Catholic Church in the United States." (link; although I strongly disagree with his title for the same reasons I've outlined above.) Me: Also remember that only 45% of U.S. dioceses even responded to the survey. By the way, there are about 19,000 Catholic parishes in the United States (source).]