ALBERT LEA, Minn. — A bookkeeper has pleaded not guilty to charges that she stole nearly $200,000 from a Catholic church and school in Albert Lea, marking the latest incident suggesting to some observers a problem with lax financial controls in American Catholicism.
Thirty-seven-year-old Ryan Mae McFarland of Austin entered her plea Thursday in Freeborn County District Court.
McFarland is charged with nine felony counts of theft by swindle. She was in charge of payroll and church contributions. A criminal complaint says McFarland transferred funds from St. Theodore Catholic Church and its school to her personal accounts
The Albert Lea Tribune reports the alleged theft reportedly took place from August 2013 through Feb. 5, 2014.
Judge Steven Schwab ordered McFarland to have no contact with church personnel or staff and to stay away from the church. McFarland is due back in court on Aug. 4 for a settlement conference.
The latest charge of shoddy financial controls comes against the backdrop of a 2006 study by Villanova University, which found that 85 percent of dioceses in the United States had experienced some form of embezzlement within the previous five years, mostly at the parish level.
Anecdotal accounts back up that finding. In that year, 2006, a pastor in the Bridgeport, Connecticut diocese was charged with misspending $1.4 million in donations to his parish, while four purchasing agents for the Archdiocese of New York faced criminal charges for allegedly extorting over $2 million in kickbacks from food vendors, resulting in the archdiocese overpaying for food by some $1 million.
In 2009, a jury in West Palm Beach, Florida, convicted two priests of bilking funds from their parish to support expensive vacations and even girlfriends.
A retired U.S. Postal Service inspector and lifelong Catholic named Michael W. Ryan has examined money management in the Church in the United States. His estimate is that Catholic parishes in the the country may lose as much as $90 million annually due to inadequate controls over the collection plate.
Other experts find that estimate difficult to support with hard data, but most observers agree that money management remains a challenge for the Church, especially at the parish level where most funds are collected and disbursed.
Based on 2011 data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, average annual parish revenue in the United States is $695,291.
Joseph Harris, one of the premier financial analysts in American Catholicism, says that multiplying that estimate by the 17,139 parishes in the country yields total parish income of $11.9 billion, with two-thirds ($8.2 billion) coming from the collection plate. The rest comes from capital campaigns, one-time gifts, inheritances, and other relatively minor sources.
Put differently, those numbers suggest that American Catholics drop roughly $150 million into the Sunday collection plate every week.
Since average parish expenses are $626,000, according to the CARA data, most places are basically breaking even. The national total for parish expenses works out to $10.7 billion. The narrow margin between revenue and expenses, observers say, mean that parishes can be especially hard-hit even by relatively small thefts.
(Crux staff contributed to this report.)