South African Bishop Sithembele Sipuka Offers Reflection on Corruption in the Church

‘Taking the log out of my eye to see the splinter in my neighbor’s eye’

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The ended month of September saw the Churches issuing harsh statements, writing newsletters, holding services, and publicly protesting against corruption in government and in business. There are many grounds, biblical and theological that justify pronouncement and action against corruption as an essential part of the mission of the Church, which can easily result into volumes of books, were they to be dealt with in detail.

These grounds can be summarized into two; namely concern, love, compassion, and preference that God has for the poor and secondly, the priority of the common good over individual and personal wants. Corruption violates these fundamental biblical and theological values and so the Churches are within their mandate to speak and act against corruption.

As the saying that “when you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you” reminds us, however, it is only realistic and honest to examine what these three fingers are pointing to us as Church in relation to corruption. In clear conscience can we say that we as Church are free of what we are condemning in others? Definitely, an honest answer to this question cannot be affirmative, nor can we take comfort from the saying that “do as I tell you and not as I do”.

The opportunity therefore to dutifully point out and act against corruption in government and business is also an opportunity for the Church to introspect about attitudes and practices in her life and work that smack of corruption. As the Church seeks to remove the splinter of corruption in government, business, and society, she also needs to reckon with the possible log in her own eye that would make it hypocritical to point out the splinter in others as the good Lord humorously put it. Moreover, worldwide, the Church is seen as a moral authority, and so when she is also corrupt, her role as lighthouse of goodness is discredited and the hope of people on the role of the Church to overcome the cancer of corruption is destroyed.

The Corruption pointed by the 3 fingers in the Church

Corruption takes different forms and among them, the three that mostly occur in the Church are misappropriation of funds, sexual abuse, and lack of work ethic. In mentioning them here, the intention is to invite alertness to them, if not also scrupulosity about them because they silently creep in without awareness and become a way of life causing us to be surprised when we are accused of corruption. I will deal here with the first one and will continue with the other two in next month’s newsletter. Let me hasten to add that the corruption traits that I note here are NOT true for all priests and religious but for some, but they taint us all, and we must all be awake to them because they can also characterize us.

Misappropriation of funds

Misappropriation of funds can occur on account of ignorance and on account of fraudulent intentions.

  1. Ignorant Misappropriation

At the level of ignorance, misappropriation is facilitated by a lack of proper management of funds, which leads to individuals unduly benefiting from funds that were not meant for their benefit. Most of the time it happens with the innocence of filling in for a “need that suddenly presented itself” with the money that was not meant for it. Often it is not even for needs but for personal “wants” that this money is spent.

It is often accompanied by a lack of recording so that when the time comes for accounting for the money, the person does not know what he has done with the money. Lack of accounting mechanisms like reports and financial quarterly returns also feed this type of misappropriation of funds. The remedy for this form of corruption is for one to learn and practice financial management and stick to the rules of accounting.

  • Fraudulent Misappropriation

The second form of misappropriation of funds is sheer greed for money, where a person knowingly diverts funds meant for something else, most of the time for himself or herself, for his family or for friends. The remedy for this form of misappropriation is to fire the person and have him, or her charged.

  • Double Dipping

Still under fraudulent misappropriation is what could be called double-dipping. This is where a person is paid and provided for what he or she is expected to do, but then uses the time and the skills for which he or she is paid to generate more income without declaring it. Double-dipping can also take the form of charging for what falls within one’s line of duty and take the money for himself.

What if it is a Priest?

What if it is a priest or a religious who engages in this form of corruption? The honest answer to the question is that if the Church is calling for action against corrupt people in government and business, it should also apply to both priests and religious who push corruption. Any suggestion for a different treatment would be nothing less than clericalism which unconsciously promotes the use of clerical status or power for selfish reasons and getting away with it. Corruption is the same regardless of who pushes it and logically the consequences must be the same.

Culture and Clericalism as contributing factors

The culture of materialism is a temptation for some priests and religious who joined knowing that priesthood is an invitation to a frugal way of life with the intention to serve and not to be served. As they progress towards priesthood, however, and eventually become priests, they begin to see opportunities for a lucrative lifestyle. The remedy is to go back to the original motive for becoming a priest and to reignite the appreciation of evangelical counsels. It is to find again satisfaction in God who is “better than life”, (Ps.63) and who makes us indifferent to material things. Corruption among clergy and religious has a lot to do with the declining spiritual life which is then compensated for by scrambling for more material things.

The other cultural element contributing to the mismanagement of funds is the pressure to support family members as if a priest is earning a market-related salary. There is a temptation to forget on the side of the relatives that priesthood is a sacrifice and that family members and friends should not expect to be supported by their priest son or priest uncle as if he is working. It is not fair for a priest and a religious to spend Church money for his family and time and energy on family matters when he had voluntarily given himself to the Church. A priest must avoid giving an impression to their families that they have access to “lots” of monies and that they are 24 hours available to family matters; they belong to the Church as a married person belongs to his/her family. Otherwise, if this situation persists, one must think of making a choice and find a salaried job to meet one’s family expectations.

+Sithembele Sipuka
Bishop of Mthatha

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