by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In the 1944 Academy Award-winning film “Going My Way,” a lighthearted scene is played out when young Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) asks the crusty — and notoriously thrifty — Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) for some recreational funds. “Father, now that you’re practically wallowing in wealth,” said Father O’Malley, “do you suppose I could have half a dollar?”
“What for?” said Father Fitzgibbon.
“Father O’Dowd and I thought, with your permission, we’d play golf tomorrow,” said the young priest. “I need a new golf ball. If I lose it, I’ll swear off. I’ll quit.”
“Take fifty cents,” said Father Fitzgibbon. “No. Take it out of the ladies’ sodality. They never keep any books.”
Times have changed. The casual approach to administering parish funds shown in the 1944 film wouldn’t fly today.
In fact, earlier this year, the Accounting Practices Committee, an advisory body to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the bishops to institute even tighter internal controls in the nation’s 19,000 parishes.
Among other recommendations, the committee advised that every diocese provide training to parish finance council members and that each parish be required to complete an annual internal control questionnaire.
In an effort to implement these recommendations, the archdiocese has hired Laura Miller as its first internal auditor.
Miller, who was born in Chicago, has spent most of her life in Johnson County. She is a graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School, attended the University of Kansas for two years, and graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
She is a licensed certified public accountant and is studying to become a certified fraud examiner. Before coming to the archdiocese, she did accounting and internal auditing for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo. Miller and her three sons belong to Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
“Her position is called ‘internal auditor,’” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. “It’s a position that we see as something of a help and service to our parishes and agencies, to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to protect their assets in a prudent way and have the proper internal controls to eliminate any temptation to misappropriate church funds.”
“But also, [she will] help [parishes] with their financial reporting,” he continued, “so it can be accurate and clear — both for parishioners to be able to understand the financial picture of the parish, as well as for the reporting that the parishes are required to make to the archdiocese.”
That way, the archbishop explained, it will be “consistent and meaningful in the sense that everyone is reporting in the same categories, so we can have a better picture of the financial strengths and needs of particular parishes, agencies and institutions.”
Although she will have an office in the chancery, Miller will be spending most of her time at archdiocesan parishes.
“My plan is to visit all the parishes within the next three years to help them review their internal controls — [how they manage their] financial information, cash and operational procedures,” she said. “Basically, the objective of these reviews is to make sure that financial and operational information is accurate, complete, compliant with applicable laws, and is efficient.”
Many things fall under the rubric of good internal controls, including computer passwords, methods of counting the Sunday collections, bookkeeping practices, payroll, and benefits and endowments.
“The way I see it, helping the parishes review their controls . . . and making sure those controls are in place, allows the parish to focus on the more meaningful parts of their ministry — service to others,” she said. “That’s what a good control environment will give you.”
The reports that Miller will generate are not for dissemination to all parishioners, but rather to the archdiocese and the individual parish. Her reports will help the pastor to inform his parishioners of the parish’s financial status.
Archbishop Naumann sees many advantages to having an internal auditor dedicated to beefing up internal controls.
Not all parishes have highly trained bookkeepers, so one advantage is that Miller will be able to help these parishes improve their practices, he said. Another advantage is that improved internal controls will assist incoming pastors to quickly get a clear picture of the parish they have been called to lead. Thirdly, good internal controls help build the good will, trust and confidence that people need to have in regard to parish finances.
“I think as a church we want to be as transparent with the finances as possible, and we always want to be accountable to the people who make the sacrifices to give the church the resources to do its mission,” said the archbishop.