Brownsville Diocese scores low on openness

BROWNSVILLE — The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville was among the lowest scoring U.S. dioceses in terms of online financial transparency, according to a study released Nov. 7 by Voice of the Faithful.

The nonprofit group originally formed to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse but also advocates for “accountability and transparency” in how the church handles its financial resources.

However, a spokeswoman for the diocese said an initiative was already underway to make more financial information available online.

The Brownsville diocese scored 10 out of 60 possible points in the study conducted by the VOTF Finance Working Group, which surveyed all 177 U.S. diocese websites and found “a level of openness well below what could be reasonably expected of an organization anywhere near the size of the U.S. Catholic Church.”

Brownsville shared the lowest ranking with the dioceses of Biloxi, Miss., and Camden, N.J., and the archdiocese of Mobile, Ala. Also scoring among the lowest were the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., with 15 points; and the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn., with 17 points.

The highest score for online financial disclosure went to the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., with 59 points, followed by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis., and the dioceses of Cleveland, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, each of which scored 56 points.

Researchers based the scores on 10 questions, with a maximum of five possible points awarded for each question.

Among other topics, the study probed whether websites contained easily found financial data and working internal search functions; whether appeals for donations from laity were adequately explained and reported on financial statements; whether business office contact information was provided; and whether parish financial guidelines were posted.

The Brownsville diocese scored five points each for having an operable search function and business office contact on its website, but scored zero on everything else. The study did not attempt to explore the reasons for the wide discrepancies in scores across the nation, and VOTF said the discrepancies do not appear to connect to dioceses’ size, financial resources, geography or “relative importance.”

The study found that 61 dioceses shared no financial data on their websites, and 75 dioceses did not post parish financial guidelines. The average overall score for all U.S. dioceses is 36. If viewed from a pass-fail perspective, half of U.S. dioceses failed, according to VOTF.

Margaret Roylance, VOTF trustee and chairman of the Finance Working Group, said many years of experience in government-sponsored research and development impressed upon her “the degree of financial accountability required from those who receive taxpayer money.” The church hierarchy, meanwhile, depends on financial support from the laity.

“We wanted to learn if a comparable level of accountability for donations to the church was possible,” she said. “We set out to determine the level of transparency and accountability Catholics could expect concerning their donations. Could they find and easily interpret their dioceses’ finances from information on diocesan websites, where most people these days would look?”

Brenda Nettles Riojas, Brownsville diocesan relations director, acknowledged in an email that the diocese scored low in the VOTF study, but said the diocese already had begun developing a new website that will include financial information.

“As a missionary diocese, which relies on grants and outside resources, we are committed to financial transparency as we carry out the mission of the church,” she said. “While financial information has not been previously posted online, plans are underway to include it on the website by the end of the year or early January as the migration of data to the new website progresses. The diocese also plans to post information in the diocesan newspaper, The Valley Catholic.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com