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Government Corruption & Church Scandals: Can Public Trust Be Restored?

Updated on August 2, 2016
David Ortega profile image

Enthusiastic strategic manager skilled in budgeting, fundraising, grant writing and policy development. Master of Public Administration.

Introduction

An explosion of media attention has recently sprung onto the scene regarding corruption and scandals. We have seen a number of political leaders who have been caught acting in ways most would consider deplorable. It seems as though Americans react with initial outrage calling for resignations of those elected to office. As a result of the outcries, some officials have resigned, others impeached and still others impeached yet not removed from office. Yet Americans seem to exhibit amnesia and forgetfulness regarding the debacle. The public seems to turn a blind eye, becoming even more desensitized. What about corruption in faith-based institutions?

Public Officials and Faith-Based Scandals

Scandals in faith-based institutions have also shattered our trust. Several pastors, priests, youth leaders, and teachers have been tried for the abuse of minors, lying, cheating and defrauding their organization. We hold those elected to office to a higher standard of ethics. Americans hold those in pastoral leadership to an even higher standard.

There appears to be an increasing number of scandals both in government and faith-based organizations. Are we becoming desensitized? Are our morals and ethics decaying?

I investigate why ethics are important for public administrators, whether elected or non-elected and show the need to apply a higher standard for those in pastoral leadership of faith-based institutions. There is a need for re-sensitizing Americans to the unacceptable, unethical and immoral practices of government whether public or private.

Can You Legislate Morality?

The first concern one might have is the ever popular argument that claims that you can’t legislate morality. However, we pass laws against stealing, prostitution and lying under oath and all of these have a moral and ethical element to them.

Research supporting the regulation of corruption is important. The first is that the lack of morals and ethics results in a violation of dignity and trust between the perpetrator and the victim. It is also important because evidence suggests that the incidence of scandal is increasing in government and faith-based institutions.

Policies and Church Leadership

I work as a business manager in a faith-based institution that is currently in a recovery and restitution period. It currently seeks to be pro-active rather than reactive and has implemented additional policies and programs to deal with the issue. Bishops are calling for greater accountability, transparency and internal control measures (USCCB, 2008).

Thesis Statement

The standard of ethics needs to be raised for those in governmental and pastoral leadership.

Part 1: 6 Journal Articles

The following journal articles address corruption and scandals. The research question and critical assessment in support of my thesis is identified for each. Recommendations are found in Part 2.

Article 1: Democracy and Deceit: Regulating Appearances of Corruption

Warren sets out to show the need and appropriateness of regulating the appearance of impropriety in government. It is a descriptive study, using case example for support. There is a lack of defined independent and dependent variables but it can be stated that the need for regulation depends on public trust. Democracy depends upon the integrity of appearances.

A strength of this article is the support of my thesis showing the need for regulating corruption, in this case the appearance of corruption. A weakness is that it does not use scientific methodology to define dependent and independent variables and provide evidence of its reliability and validity. The audience includes regulators and citizens. Warren is the Professor for the Study of Democracy at the University of Columbia and further demonstrates his expertise by having his writings appear in a peer reviewed journal. One of the biases might be that he over emphasizes democracy as the preferred form of government and seems to de-emphasize the fact that the United States is a Republic.

Support for my thesis is evident in his statements about public trust and the need for regulation. He supports my notion of more recent interest in this topic since Watergate and the appropriateness of regulating corruption. He also notes the declining trust of the public since the 1960s.


Mark Warren: Democracy and Trust

Article 2: Government Finance Officers Association Code of Professional Ethics: Anchor in a Sea of Change

Recent corporate scandals have called for a greater adherence to the Code of Ethics formulated by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). The author calls for the GFOA to raise the standard for public financial officers and additionally for them to uphold the spirit and letter of the law. It is a descriptive report, tracing events and codes from 1938 through the 1990s. Johnson admits the results will vary due to differing interpretations of the code.

A weakness of this report is the lack of additional case studies that could have been used to support the call for a greater ethical standard. The strength of this report is that it is highly applicable to a number of scandalous current events that have sprang upon the scene. The fact that the author is a board member of the GFOA is both a bias yet sign of expertise. The target audience is finance professionals. Despite the weaknesses and bias, the author articulates well the call for a higher standard of professional behavior and therefore supports my thesis, even my title of this research paper.

Article 3: The Importance of Trusted Leaders: Are You a Trusted Leader?

The central research question is the need for trusted leaders in government. How do you earn trust? The author suggests getting out of the office and communicating with their people. The methodology is largely descriptive with few case examples. It included interviews of panelists who have extensive experience including directors, auditors and a marshal of the Supreme Court. The results are that the sharing of experiences helped them become sensitive to values.

The strength of this report is that it brought together a number of leaders who shared their experiences for establishing and maintaining trust of their employees. A weakness is that this is not a scientific study with clear dependent and independent variables. The expertise of the author includes being a long-time member of the board of directors of the Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association (FEIAA) and editor of the FEIAA's monthly newsletter. He retired from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2003. The author is a member of the organization that was studied and might be considered a bias. The target audience are government leaders. Support for my thesis includes the citing of the poll that shows public trust in government declining in the last 30 years and the need for leadership to build relationships that make government work.

Article 4: Ethical Leadership and the Public Trust

The author looks for four characteristics that must be present in leaders: honesty, forward-looking, competent, and inspiring. The research methodology is descriptive with few case examples. The results show the need for leaders to look into what followers pursue in a leader whether they are at the corporate, political or community level.

A strength of this report is that it looks to the people for its answers. A weakness is that it was not a very long or in-depth study with a lack of dependent and independent variables. The amount of trust placed in a leader is dependent upon their ability to look to the followers interests and offer them hope. The expertise of the author includes being a graduate assistant at the Arkansas Public Administration Consortium Institute of Government, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her winning essay, in memory of Wally O. Keene, was selected by a panel comprising American Society of Public Administration and The Public Manager board members. A bias might include that the author is a member of the target audience. The article supports my thesis that a call for trust building is needed whether you are a public or private leader.

Article 5: What Kind of International Public Service Do We Need for the Twenty-first Century?

The author calls for reform in international civil service and to return to the high standards it once held in ethics, accountability, transparency, fairness and managerial excellence. The methodology is largely descriptive with a few case examples provided. International models and business models are discussed but the author calls for further exploration of them. He proposes 5 objectives in order to obtain or produce an efficient, competent, integrity-based, effective international public service. These proposals are imposed upon the UN secretary-general and we have yet to see the results.

The strength of this study is the valid, common sense proposals made by the author. The main weakness is that the proposals were not measured for outcomes. The target audience is international leaders. The expertise of the author includes being a professor of international relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. He was a career staff member of the United Nations Secretariat during the period 1971–1997 and since has consulted widely with organizations of the United Nations system in results-based management. A bias might be that public administration at the UN level is based on ideologies that differ from public administration in the US. However, this helps to support my thesis that a call for greater integrity goes beyond traditional US public administration and should be embraced locally, abroad and by faith-based institutions.

Article 6: Understanding and Maintaining Ethical Values in the Public Sector Through an Integrated Approach to Leadership

The author explores transactional and transformational approaches of ethical public-sector leadership. The methodology is descriptive with a few case examples. There are no defined dependent or independent variables. The author cites a number of relevant cases, increasing the validity of the results. The author convinces me that public leaders are expected to conform to a higher set of standards than those of their own personal morality.

The strength of this article is that it addresses the need to raise the standard of ethics not only at the international, but national level. An adequate number of case examples supported the need for higher standards of ethics. The author also focuses on personal moral development. A weakness of the article is that the terms transactional and transformational leadership were only loosely defined. Otherwise, the article supported my proposal as it seeks to increase awareness of ethical matters and raise the standard for both national and international public administrators.

Key Points of Articles

The articles clearly show the deterioration and decline of ethics and morals due to scandals and lapse of good judgment in our country and even across the globe. They each call for a greater degree of ethics, accountability, responsibility, integrity and morals in public administration. Each author calls for adopting regulations, principles or codes at the national or international level in order to raise the standard of ethics across several venues from finance to international public service.

These sources will help to develop a recommendation to my church regarding the adoption of newer guidelines set forth by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that call for greater accountability, transparency and control measures when addressing the protection of children and financial matters. I will first show that morals and ethics have been decreasing at home and abroad within private and public sectors. Secondly, I can show that the public outcry for a higher standard of ethics and morals has been on the increase. Finally, I will show the proposals for adopting additional codes, principles and regulations that call for raising the standard of ethics in organizations.

Part 2: Example Local Catholic Church

Saints John and Paul Catholic Church is located in Altoona, Iowa. We broke ground for our parish hall that served as our first worship space in 1983. Our mission statement is: “Called together by our common baptism, Saints John and Paul Parish strives to live the good news of Jesus by celebrating the Eucharist and all the sacraments. Committed to life-long learning we share Christ with others by living our faith and reaching out in love.”

We have approximately 900 registered members or families. This translates to about 2,500 souls, that is, men, women and children. We are a young parish. The average age of our members is about thirty. We celebrate many infant baptisms. We celebrate mass on Saturday nights at 5:00 PM and Sunday mornings at 8:30 and 10:30 AM. We also celebrate mass on Tuesday nights at 5:30 PM and mornings Wednesday through Friday at 9 AM. Everyone is welcome.

Our parish priest is under the obedience of the Diocesan Bishop. As pastor, he is ultimately responsible for the many ways our organization shares faith and reaches out in love. We are staffed with five other full time staff members. In terms of reporting relationships, we are continuing to develop them more clearly as our job descriptions are undergoing revisions. Six individuals report directly to our pastor.

Church Organization Culture

The organizational culture is rather unique when compared to both private and public agencies. My immediate supervisor is also a priest. The level of respect and expectations of work performance increases if your immediate supervisor is also an ordained minister.

Faith Formation Sessions

There are three monthly sessions of intergenerational faith formation. Entire families are formed in their faith at the same time. The faith lesson is explained by our catechists or teachers together with our pastor using state of the art AV equipment. Age appropriate breakout sessions are conducted.

Committees

There are a number of committees and individual faith groups that meet regularly. They include a Pastoral Council, Finance Council, Saint Vincent De Paul Council, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Habitat for Humanity, and various fundraising committees.

Seasonal Projects

During Thanksgiving and Christmas, our parish begins a project called, “Angel Tree." Members pick an angel on a Christmas tree in our gathering space with a name of a family written on it. These are children whose parents are incarcerated during Christmas time and are in need of gifts, usually clothing or something practical and a game to bring them joy.

Our parish celebrates, "Mardis Gras," the French word for “Fat Tuesday. "Our parish celebrated this year with a clown, piñatas, face paintings, and other activities in our parish hall. The next day, Ash Wednesday, begins our solemn period of prayer, penance and fasting. Therefore Fat Tuesday is the last day for Catholics to eat, drink and be merry. During Lent, the forty days commemorating Christ’s time of fasting in the desert, we have a mass on Tuesday nights followed by a simple soup supper. During this time we also celebrate Christ through a parish retreat we call the Christian Experience Weekend (CEW). Usually held in the months of January for women and February for men, both members and non-members gather for a weekend prayer experience full of faith-filled surprises designed to draw people closer to Christ and fill them with a sense of peace that surpasses human understanding. These experiences are also designed to animate people to share their renewed sense of faith to others through future fellowship and participation in parish activities.

Money Handling Controls

Our annual budget is about $600,000. The primary source of income comes from our offertory collection during masses or worship services. Ushers pass the basket and transfer the tithes to a larger basket that is brought to the altar. The monies are brought to a secured room for counting. Our parish has recently seen the need to adopt greater control measures for mass collections and counting. The Diocese provided guidelines to the area parishes in an effort to strengthen accountability, transparency and internal control measures in the Financial Management and Control Manual. Using them as a template I proposed a collection procedure for our parish for our ushers and money counters found in Management of Mass Collections and Money Counters Information.

Accountability for Children

Additionally, our church functions involve a number of staff and volunteers who work closely with children. In an effort to ensure the safety of our children, the Diocese has implemented a Protecting God’s Children program known as VIRTUS (Available at Virtus.org). As part of the VIRTUS requirements, the Code of Conduct must be reviewed and acknowledged.

Thoughts?

Is implementing programs like Protecting God's Children and VIRTUS a good idea?

See results

Recommendations

The Diocese of Des Moines and other churches see the need to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to anticipating and addressing issues related to integrity. My recommendation to our pastor and staff is that the programs we have recently implemented are timely and necessary. We need to continue to find ways to raise the standard for our accountability, transparency and internal control measures.

Compliance with Programs

Two areas of our parish need to be strengthened. First, our Protecting God’s Children program, while it has already earned a compliance recognition certificate, needs to make sure that it is always ready to pass an on-site compliance evaluation spot-check. Secondly, our internal control measures for the collection and processing of monies need to address the control deficiency identified in our audit last year. I will address each one separately.

Protecting God’s Children

Current standards state that virtually anyone who has three hours per month of contact with children must attend the VIRTUS training program as well as submit to and pass a background check. All of our full time employees have already met the requirements including ongoing on-line training sessions. The parish is responsible for identifying individuals whether employees or volunteers who need training and background checks. The Business Manager provides notice that they need to have the training and fill out the necessary forms. The Diocese asks that we review this information every quarter and provide updates as necessary. I recommend that we are very strict about our interpretation of the minimum of three hours per month contact with children. For example, we might consider lowering that threshold to one hour per month. Sunday school catechists might be involved with children during only one or two hours per month. I think they should be included in the VIRTUS training and background checks. Other volunteers that I would consider in a gray area are vacation bible school (VBS) volunteers who although the week is designed to have young children participate, the adult volunteers are only involved with meal preparation primarily behind the scenes and serving. Though this might not be what one would consider direct contact with children, VBS runs five days from 6-8:30 PM and of course, children are served during mealtime. One could argue that the contact with children time is only one half hour during this five day period resulting in two and a half hours of contact time. Do we round up the hours to three in order to meet the standard that is already in place? I say yes. Either that or use my proposed one hour threshold in an effort to raise the standard for protecting God’s children. An advantage is to ensure we are covered for our anticipated on-site audit. A disadvantage would be the resistance coming from persons that feel this is not all that necessary for the few hours they are here for the activities.

Internal Control Measures for Money Handling

One of the ways to strengthen our internal control measures as recommended by an audit conducted last year is to segregate duties for our money collection and deposit procedure. There needs to be at least two persons involved in filling out deposit slips, making the deposit, recording the transaction in our software program and conducting bank reconciliation. There is also a need to verify that the bank reconciliation is done correctly. Our 2009 audit specifically states that a control deficiency was identified and recommended that another person be involved in the process. We explored the possibility of another volunteer to be involved in this process. This would require someone with an accounting background, respectful of sensitive and confidential information, is computer proficient and regularly available. Those criteria quickly narrow the field and in fact heighten the need for creating a new parish position and hiring an employee. An advantage would be that this person would handle alternating duties of money handling with the Business Manager so as to meet the internal control measure. Disadvantages include being able to clearly justify the position before the Pastoral and Finance Councils as well as the rest of the congregation. Another disadvantage would be the cost of hiring a part-time person. Disadvantages for not hiring this person include increased hours for both our Office and Business Managers as well as the potential cost of not being able to identify a breach in the internal control measure resulting in hundreds if not thousands of dollars being potentially misappropriated.

Software Programs with Fail-Safe Measures

Another step the Diocese already has in place is the mandated Church Management System (CMS) software program for use by all parishes in our diocese. It is specifically designed to handle cash basis accounting as it relates to church activities. It has over ten thousand (that is no typo) codes on the chart of accounts. Hiring a person who has at least an associate’s degree in accounting would increase the chances of employing a person with the necessary competencies for making accurate and code compliant data entries. A disadvantage might be that hiring someone with a degree would mean that our salary would have to reflect just compensation. An advantage would be that the work could be done accurately and efficiently. Another advantage of paying a competitive wage would be that the person should feel a sense of worth which could translate in to loyalty and dependability for our church.

Conclusion

Applying these recommendations throughout government and faith-based institutions are helpful in restoring trust and maintaining a safe environment for those considered most vulnerable and innocent.

References

Erickson, Amanda L. (2006). Ethical Leadership and the Public Trust. The Public Manager. The Bureaucrat INC. Cengage Learning.

Johnson, Eric R. (2002). GFOA Code of Professional Ethics: Anchor in a Sea of Change. Government Finance Review. Cengage Learning.

Mathiason, John. (2008). What Kind of International Public Service Do We Need for the Twenty-first Century? Global Governance, Vol. 14. Pp. 127-133.

McDougle, Lindsey M. (2007). Understanding and Maintaining Ethical Values in the Public Sector Through an Integrated Approach to Leadership. “Leading the Future of the Public Sector”—The Third Transatlantic Dialogue. May 31–June 2, 2007 · University of Delaware · Newark, Delaware USA

Pettibone, Craig (2008). The Importance of Trusted Leaders: Are You a Trusted Leader? Do You Trust the Leaders for Whom You Work? The Public Manager. Cengage Learning.

Warren, Mark E. (2006). Democracy and Deceit: Regulating Appearances of Corruption. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 50, No. 1, Pp. 160–174

The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, INC. Virtus Online. http://www.virtus.org/virtus/preview_pgc.cfm

Report of Bishop Roger Morin, Chairman Subcommittee on Catholic Campaign for Human Development on CCHD and ACORN November 11, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.usccb.org/_cs_upload/7743_1.pdf

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