Money dropped in a collection basket stands to pass through many hands — those of ushers, counters, parish staff members and perhaps others — before reaching the bank. Along the way, human error and temptation are rare but real possibilities that could hinder funds from safely reaching their destination. What assurances can be given to instill confidence in donors?
Quite a few, if you’re talking about parishes of the Diocese of Rochester.
Lisa Passero, diocesan chief financial officer, said local parishes are charged with employing numerous safeguards to ensure accuracy, safety and honesty in receiving, managing and reporting parish collections. Passero added that these policies are derived from guidelines developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
For starters, all collections must be brought to the altar during the offertory at Mass. Immediately after Mass, at least two people, usually ushers, are to secure the collections in specialized containers known as tamper-evident bags. These bags are designed to leave detectable signs when they’re handled without authorization.
"If tamper-evident bags aren’t used, the cash is available for anybody, and it’s tempting (to pocket the money.) So tamper-evident bags are a key; they’re probably one of the most important controls we have," Passero said.
Diocesan guidelines further state that the bags are to be signed and dated and immediately placed in a safe, not to be removed again until the money is ready to be counted. At that point at least two counters must go to the safe together to remove the money. The guidelines note that collections must be counted on church property by at least two individuals who are not related to each other and who are not employed by the parish, so as to prevent the possibility of collusion. A parish should have a minimum of two counting teams that rotate from one week to the next. At least two people should also take the money to the bank, and this should be done as quickly as possible.
Passero said these procedures not only lessen the possibility of theft by strangers, but also reduce the odds that people involved in the collecting and counting process will be enticed to pocket unprotected cash.
"By and large, most people are honest. But we don’t even want to put them in a position where there’s a temptation," Passero remarked.
To reinforce diocesan policies, she said a mandatory seminar was presented last spring for parish administrators and business managers. Passero and Mary Ziarniak, diocesan director of financial services, noted that the session included skits to illustrate the consequences of not following proper procedures. For instance, a person was depicted as transporting funds alone from Mass to the safe and to the bank, procedure violations that would prevent dual control and also raise the risk of being robbed.
Passero and Ziarniak added that parishes are required to send parishioners annual statements of their envelope contributions, thus enhancing accuracy and propriety. Parishes also must file annual reports to the diocese and are subject to audit.
All these steps are examples of what Passero describes as a tightening in recent years of diocesan policies regarding collections that has, in turn, cut down on incidences of fraud. Imposing such a long list of safeguards may appear excessive to some, but Passero said it’s all done in the name of ensuring that beneficiaries get their full share while donors’ good intentions are carried out.
"I believe that’s what drives our policies and procedures. We’re stewards of our contributors’ funds," Passero said.
Yet she acknowledged that even the best of systems may not be completely foolproof, so the diocese depends on eyes in the community. When financial fraud or abuse is suspected at parishes — or at Catholic schools and other diocesan agencies — witnesses are strongly encouraged to contact the diocesan Internal Audit Department at its hotline number, 585-328-3228, ext. 1266 (toll free at 1-800-388-7177, ext. 1266). Reports also may be submitted in writing to the Internal Audit Department, Diocese of Rochester, 1150 Buffalo Road, Rochester, NY 14624.
Such reports can be filed anonymously, which should quell any employees’ fear of risking their jobs by implicating their superiors. In fact, Passero and Ziarniak said there’s more of a job risk by not reporting when impropriety is suspected.