Friday, September 29, 2006

Embezzling Priests & The Nature of Sin

Thursday the news services carried the story of two priests in Delray Beach, Florida who allegedly embezzled $8.6 million in offerings and gifts made to their parish over several years. Specifics on how the money has been spent or where the remaining amounts are have not been determined but apparently the two priests have taken some trips and gambled a good bit of it away. It should be noted that the attorney for the priests claims that the money is more like $325,000 rather than millions. The seizure of funds began in 2001.

The actual amount of money stolen is important but my point of reflection focuses on the act, not the amount. How can two “holy men” do this? I’m not concluding that these two priests are already guilty. I’ll let the courts do that. But today’s news also carries the story from the West coast of a pending legal situation concerning a priest who allegedly molested boys and young men. I also don’t cast my reflection upon Catholic priests only. There are plenty of stories about protestant clergy.

How can those entrusted with the spiritual care of people and given stewardship over resources abuse that trust? This isn’t a case of someone “slipping” and falling once and repenting and getting back up. All of us do things we know are wrong and that most of the time we don’t want to do. Regular confession, repentance and forgiveness are the means of getting back on the right track.

But what I’m highlighting today is long-term, systemic sin, even while continuing to carry out ministerial duties of prayers, mass, communion, blessings, etc. How does that happen?

Long-term, systemic sin (sin habits) happens to all of us. You have “pet” sins and I have sins that tug at me to repeat them over and again. Maybe our sins don’t get into millions of dollars or make newspaper headlines, but our sins grieve God and leave us separated from God no matter how “insignificant” we deem them to be.

Sin habits and even addictions happen when we don’t immediately repent from a sinful act. For the priests, this would have meant that the first time they embezzled in 2001, God no doubt convicted them of this wrong and stirred them to repent (i.e.: stop, turn around and go a different direction). If they had chosen to repent there would have been some immediate consequences but they would also have been set free from the sin becoming a “master” that had power over their lives.

Every time they were convicted in their hearts and failed to repent, their hearts hardened. The human heart is capable of being so hard and our thinking can be so double-minded, we can literally perform ministry while stealing millions.

I share all of that to say this--Guard your Heart. The scary thing about the priest’s story is that it can and does happen to all of us. Again, just because you don’t make the headlines doesn’t diminish the importance of having a clean heart before God.

An unchecked lusting heart will lead to emotional or physical affairs. An unchecked greedy heart will lead to theft. An unchecked selfish heart will lead to a narcissistic, self-centered life. I could go on. Guard your heart.

If you are unclear about how to guard your heart, get involved in a church and a small group of trusted Christians that are all committed to “heart care”.


Anonymous said...

This is so true, not just on a personal level, but on a society wide level. I was watching television the other night and happened to be watching a show with an older friend in his 70's. I did not realize how hardened I had become to seeing scantily clad people in suggestive behavior until he called a commercial "pornographic". This was during prime time, not late night television. Kids are still up at that hour and probably watching this popular show. No wonder we have lost the sense of right and wrong as a whole. As a society we have lost the concepts of sin and in my example, the concept of modesty.
God forgive us.

Sam said...

This is a question I've wrestled with lately. How does someone get to the point where they consciously violate trust so heinously?
There must be other explanations beyond systematic sin. What is it that actually causes a person to tip and sin the first time on something big? In this case, it’s not a small decision. If they did it, they had to know what they were doing… how does one decide to sacrifice everything like that? And once you do, why would you choose to deny it? Is it easier to deny your mistakes only to suffer a great deal more later? Why not face your problems and ask for God's forgiveness and guidance?

We all make mistakes, but I just can’t get to the point where I understand the answers to those questions.

Scott Brewer said...

Dear Anonymous:

Great illustration of what I was talking about. Thanks. I think I can guess which commercial you're referring to.

Dear Sam:

I sought to cover what can be a complex subject in a relatively brief, simple way.

You ask a great question. For the sake of others staying in the conversation of this thread I'll continue to be brief.

"How does someone get to the point...?" There are many things that could be said. Let me mention one that is very prevelent these days. I'm not specifically talking about the priests of this post but hypothetically it could have happened like this.

Someone grows up with a lot of childhood pain (fill in the blank on what could have happened). How do you deal with that pain? Most people learn to deal with (i.e.: medicate) their pain in some broken way (read: sin). Most of the time this is not conscious.

They may learn to medicate pain with promiscuous sex or with less risky fantasy sex. They may medicate with buying things learning to hunger for money. They may medicate with accomplishment, gaining an emotional lift with awards, recognition, receiving admiration, etc.

When one becomes an adult and lands in a painful circumstance (job stress, health problems, significant loss, etc.) they will be strongly tempted to respond to the pain in ways they learned.

Therefore, for that person, repentance is not just a matter of stopping a sin habit but also a matter of being healed of a past wounding.

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...


In your opinion - what is the best way to support those who has made such harsh tresspasses against us or those we love? Where does that forgiveness and love come from?

Scott Brewer said...


"What's the best way to support...?" Part of the answer depends on the nature of the sin and wounding.

With respect to a personal situation where someone has sinned against you, your first step is to forgive (release the need to get even). The only way I know to get there is by 1) receiving forgiveness from God for your sins. That gives us a heart to forgive others, and 2) choose to forgive. Forgiveness is not based upon my feeling like it. Forgiveness is not based upon the other person repenting or being sorry. Forgiveness is not based upon someone deserving it. It is a choice.

Second, decide on a proper boundary between you and the other person. Forgiveness doesn't mean that we pretend like something never happened. If you were physically abused then you need physical space from that person until trust has been rebuilt, if it is ever rebuilt. The other person may never be trustworthy again because he is unrepentant and unhealed.

Hope that helps.