A former priest’s confession: how I ended up drowning in debt

A cautionary tale from financial expert Philip Cioppa — who just happens to be a former priest:

Most of you don’t know it, but for 18½ years I served as a Roman Catholic priest. In 2001, I left the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life.

When I left however, I was deep in credit card debt. I dug myself out eventually, but looking back at my situation, I marvel at how easy it was to get into debt in the first place.

It used to be that every Catholic priest lived in a rectory, had a housekeeper, a cook and a maintenance man on premises. However, let me assure you, times have changed.

Today the rectories are very often uninhabited, the cooks are gone and the maintenance man could very well be the priest himself.

Clearly, the life of today’s typical priest mirrors the reality of his parishioners, including the fact that it’s often full of financial difficulty.

When I was ordained in 1983, I earned $8,400/year. When I left in 2001, I earned (after taxes, Social Security and Medicare) $18,000/year.

Out of this salary I had to pay for my car, car insurance, life insurance, clothing and personal care expenses, not to mention an annual deduction for health and dental care.

When all was said and done, I was left with an average of $11,000/year to live on, which did not leave much for pursuing more in life than sitting in my room, which some unenlightened Catholics feel a priest should do anyway.

So, what did I do? I got credit, of course!

In late 1983, I was so proud to receive my first credit card from a major bank. I got the card, which had a $1,000 credit limit, through the assistance of a friend’s sister, as I clearly did not qualify.

I swore I would only use it for extreme necessities. However, soon after getting that first card, I began to receive offers for more and more of them.

Read the rest.

  • http://ad-orientem.blogspot.com Ad Orientem

    “Credit” is just another word for “debt.” And “debt” is a four letter word. It should be avoided like the plague. I too got into trouble once with credit cards about 17 years ago. It took a long time to pay that off and I have sworn since then that I will never again have a credit card. Credit cards are almost always a sucker’s game. The banks always win and the idiots with the card get the shaft.

    Cash on the barrel head has been my motto for a decade and a half. Yes, I live a much more low key lifestyle than many of my acquaintances and friends. But I also have no bills and debt depriving me of sleep at night.

  • FrMichael

    I don’t know this ex-priest at all, but if he was making $11,000/year after taxes, he was serving in one of the higher paid dioceses. His problem is pretty common in my experience, even though not to the full extent he was in debt. I served with a priests once upon a time who left the ministry solely for the purpose of paying off his debts. The increasing number of international priests in the US, most of whom do not have a good grasp of US-scale finances, makes the problem even worse. $1,100/month clear is a ton of money in most of the Third World, and it is not surprising that many foreign-born priests (as well as native-born such as the author) get in profound difficulty.

  • Fiergenholt

    Now, to add something to this post, I would be that 50% of our laity would be constantly praising God if they actually had $1,100/month clear of any obligations. I only even started hoping for that blessing after the last of the children moved out — not sure I am there even yet.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    I always pay credit card bills at the end of the month. I cannot see paying the interest. I can understand how someone falls into this trap. You have to get ahead of yourself with bills. Make sure you are saving every month, and then use the credit card for convenience but never letting credit accumulate.

  • Midwest Girl

    While this priest might have trouble, priest spending is also very frustrating to us in the pews.

    Our parish pays for our priest to have the premium cable package (over $200 a month), buys his food, pays for upkeep, maintenance, and cleaning of the rectory. He also gets mileage for driving his personal vehicle for work-related functions. In addition, all of his food for him and his guests is paid for.

    My husband and I sacrifice to give to our parish – including not having cable, internet or texting on our cell phones, and driving older cars. Our entire entertainment budget (including money to go out to dinner) is $80 a month. I realize diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty – but my husband and I didn’t specifically take a vow of poverty when we married either.

  • TomKumar

    This guy’s problem with debt is NOT at all associated with the priesthood. His income was more than enough as a priest. Some people just can’t control spending— they’re like a big kid in a candy store. Give them a credit card— they spend, spend, spend! (I’d hate to know what he spent his money on . . . ) No matter what job he held in life— or will continue to hold—- he will probably have financial troubles. He is NOT representative of the typical American priest. He really is not deserving of the attention of this blog. Sorry.

  • Irish Spectre

    “I left the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life.”

    …makes it sound like any old, run-of-the-mill career change. The touble is, of course, that the priesthood isn’t a career.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    Tom…

    Fr. Michael, in a comment above, seems to disagree with your conclusion. He notes, “his problem is pretty common in my experience…”

    I’d be interested in hearing from other priests and religious out there. I suspect if this is a more widespread problem, it’s one most would prefer not to talk about, or let the people in the pews know about.

    Dcn. G.

  • FrMichael

    Deacon, I would estimate that about 10% of priests I know have had, or are having trouble, with finances. I see three manifestations: debt troubles like the subject of the article, an overly aggressive approach to raising extra money by house and car blessings, and not reporting stipends as income on the Form 1040. This latter behavior seems even more prevalent than 10%.

    Midwest Girl: are all of those expenses required by your diocesan policy? Sounds like the pastor needs better oversight.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    I was taken aback by that line too. I’m getting the impression his heart was with the material world, and his credit cards were a means.

  • TomKumar

    This problem is NOT unique to the priesthood, nor is it widespread. In all walks of life, some people just can’t handle money responsibly. The Church takes very good care of her priests. His salary was more than adequate to enjoy a very nice standard of living. For some, a million dollars wouldn’t be enough! It would burn a hole in their pocket.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    No one, I think, has indicated that this situation is unique to the priesthood. Of course it isn’t.

    But it’s almost unheard-of for a priest (or former priest) to talk openly about how he got himself into financial trouble. It merits attention for that reason, and should serve as an object lesson for all of us.

    Dcn. G.

  • Will

    I am amazed that the budget information you quote is available. I have no knowledge of what is provided to our pastor and what his salary is.

    Only certain orders of priests take a vow of poverty.

  • cathyf

    About 8 years ago at my brother’s parish, it was discovered that the pastor had been embezzling from the church to the tune of about $400,000 over a decade. He plea-bargained down to a 4-year prison sentence. What this really pointed out to me is that parish priests have basically no financial oversight, and if a priest is going to get into trouble there are no structures in place to get in his way or to even alert anyone that he is getting in over his head.

    At every parish that I have been in the pastor has the absolute authority to spend any parish money on anything he chooses. One parish had a fund for purchasing a pipe organ for the church, and about 90% of the money in it had come from a bequest from a long-time choir member. When the church needed a new air conditioner, the account was emptied. At my current parish, the spring before a former pastor retired he went on a property-buying spree, tore down the old rectory, and renovated a newly-purchased office building into a pre-school. When his successor arrived, he found the $300,000 endowment fund empty, and the church checking account had $500 in it, and our parish/school has a $20,000/month payroll. Our current pastor, against the strenuous objections of the tech support staff, signed a 5-year contract for $400/mo for a new high-speed internet connection after we had pre-paid the $2400 for the year for our old connection, leaving us with two connections for 11 months — and within 6 months the old $200/mo connection was upgraded so that it is now faster than the $400/mo connection. And the $200/mo connection was being paid about 60% by grant money, and changing ISPs means we have to start all over from scratch for the grant process — which took us 4 years to do the last time. We suspect he has been transferred, and so will leave us with the commitment to pay for this connection we don’t need.

    So I look at a priest who paid off his own debts as comparatively admirable!

  • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

    F, you took the words right out of my…keyboard.

  • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

    Ditto. He brought it up, so: maybe run-away debt was a symptom of other serious issues? I’m just really not into stories about priests who left their vocation behind and now have something to teach us laity about being lay people. I’ve plenty of experience being one myself (including controlling my or other’s cc spending), so thx, but no thx.

  • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

    Absolutely. Positively.

  • Deacon Steve

    Cathy the pastors do have oversight at the (arch)diocese level. They are also supposed to have a finance committee that helps them, even if it doesn’t have the ability to force the pastor to do something. The parish should be publishing their budget so the parishioners can see what their money is being spent to do. Building projects are required by canon law to be approved if they exceed a certain dollar amount which is set by the local ordinary. It sounds like there is a problem with the oversight at the diocese level if these abuses are taking place.

  • Deacon Norb

    Last week, I slipped into the parish house only to find two auditors working on the parish books. Now, April is always a time of budgeting for the new fiscal year (July-June) so I really was not THAT surprised. Nor has the new pastor published his budget for 2012-2013. Stay tuned, folks!

    What is true, is that like a lot of parishes, we do not generate enough from normal/regular sources of income to completely balance our normal/regular budget. The only reason we have not had to go to the diocesan revolving loan account for support is that bequests have traditionally been very generous: some are controlled — many are not.

    I can understand that practice, but from many years working managing a secular agency that had to deal with both “hard” and “soft” monies, I learned early on that one NEVER used “soft” monies to cover long term commitments. You NEVER used grant monies for payroll or utilities or normal supplies. You used grant monies — soft monies — for special projects and other non-repeatable items like lab equipment or computer hardware or even architectural renovations. In church work, soft money/bequests might also be used for new vestments or worship items that tend to last several years — BUT YOU NEVER USE SOFT MONEY TO MEET PAYROLL.

  • Fiergenholt

    Dcn Steve

    One diocese I am familiar with had the problem develop this way. For many years of the pastorate of “Father Doe,” the parish had a balanced but very tight budget. Fr Doe died and from that point forward, the weekly collections sharply went up — maybe 10%. Since Fr. Doe was fairly popular and the parish was stable, the diocese went looking to find out why. They found that the big increase was in the CASH receipts — the collection enveloped and the automatic bank transfers were stable. It turns out that Fr. Doe was skimming the cash out of the collection baskets before the “counters” ever got their hands on the baskets. The parish had more money coming in but never knew it until their long-time pastor died.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    Fiergenholt …

    A priest in my diocese told me a similar story — not about a pastor, but about one of the money counters in a parish where he was assigned.

    The priest would notice some $20 bills in the collection basket on Sunday…bills which, mysteriously, were missing when the money was counted on Monday. The bills began appearing again after the money counter retired and moved away.

    Dcn. G.

  • Fiergenholt

    Dcn G.

    One additional point. This diocese used the option allowed in Canon Law and had “irremovable rectors. The long and the short of it, once that pastor was appointed, the only way he left was death or permanent disability.

  • cathyf

    In the case of my current parish, everything has been done with the knowledge and approval of the parish finance committee and the parish trustees. I suspect that the 5-year internet contract could be broken, because he is pastoral administrator not pastor. The case of the pastor who retired and left his successor with $500 in the bank — well in the intervening 8 years a lot of us have come to agree that it was not really a stupid or irresponsible move. All the money was spent on the parish on things that were really valuable to the parish’s mission, and the pastor may have been afraid that the $300,000 was going to get grabbed by the diocese if he didn’t spend it first. Things were a little dicey for a couple of months, but the parishioners bailed out the finances.

    Also our priests and the finance committee have done a very good job of keeping parishioners informed about what money is being spent where. It’s just that we have no input whatsoever other than the finance committee, and in 14 years here I’ve never seen any of these “advisory” committees ever advise “no” when the pastor wanted to hear “yes”.

    In the last 15 years we’ve had 4 pastors/administrators (7 years, 4 years, 1 year, 3 years). 7 curates over 10.5 years, with the other 4.5 years the pastor running the place single handedly. As you may guess, we don’t get attached to priests — just wait, stoically, for them to get transferred out, and whatever pieces need to be picked up in the aftermath, we pick them up.

  • Peter

    I have heard more than my share of priests complain about their salary without doing an actual income versus obligation analysis. As a dual income family I do not have the expendable income that my clergy friends and co-ministers have after expenses.

    And in my experience priests have no problem discussing their salaries, at least with their lay counterparts in ministry (especially when in salary negotiations). The perception seems to be that laity receive a larger salary than priests are paid. I think it would be a great service for the church to account for the full cost to support the parish priest (rectory, meals, utilities, education, health insurance, etc.) and line that up against the salaries they pay Lay Ecclesial Ministers. This would give a more accurate picture between the disparity between lay and priest salaries. I suspect that the priest actually would receive a higher salary on average and in most cases in this country. I also think that such financial disparity is the reason for less and less Lay Ecclesial Ministers receiving professional ministerial formation (masters degree or further).

  • Deacon Steve

    It is hard to deal with issues like skimming the collection of the cash because there isn’t really any way to prove what was given. But in the case of money being spent on a project when it was specifically donated for another, there is no excuse for that being misspent. It is illegal, as we found out at my parish when we tried to use money donated to build a new hall for repairs on the roof of the Church. Fortunately our business manager at the time asked before he approved the use of funds. He could have gone to jail along with the pastor had it been done. Big building projects have to be approved the the bishop when they exceed a dollar amount set by the bishop in the diocese, and over a another amount it must go to Rome for approval if I remember correctly from my canon law class. Unfortunately many times these check points are ignored as I ahve seen happen in my area. Our regional bishop found out about a construction project at a parish only because his deacon secretary happened to drive by the parish and see the scaffolding.

  • MidwestGirl

    I’m honestly not sure if all those expenses are required by our diocesan policy or not. However, how is a business manager supposed to tell her boss, the pastor, no? In my experience, if Father says it’s necessary (or expected) the finance council (or other boards) will go along with what is said.

  • pol

    I hear ya! The parish where my best friend works , is the welathiest in our diocese and trust me, the pastor and his associate pay for very little. In fact, one of the wealthier member takes the pastor to Florida pretty much whenever the pastor can go and the parishioner is availabe. Likewise, there constant dinner invitations. Health insurance? The priests of our diocese have terrific health insurance MUCH better than their employees. Two of my classmates are priests. One has a runs a womens recovery center plus his parish. He has 3 vehicles that parishioner gave him, not one, but three slot machiones in his rectory and a lot of hunting trophies he got while on vacation. The other classmate serves some rural parishes in the souther part of our stte. He will retire to his 80 acre farm. My own uncle who was a pastor, dean and monsignor as well as Army Air Force chaplin WW2, retired VERY well. His estate was rumored to be around $250K. NONE of these guy did anything wrong, BUT were well taken care by their parishioners. There is NO reason for priest to go into serious credit card debt around here.

  • FrMichael

    The personal indulgence that triggered this post, and some examples given in the comments, demonstrate something that has been a long-running beef of mine: priests get NO financial training in the seminary and few dioceses conduct post-ordination workshops on this. Many priests have no financial acumen at all, yet may be in charge of a multi-million dollar parish and parochial school with no effective oversight by the diocese. It is a situation ripe for disaster.

  • Paul

    Yeah, I couldn’t get past that first sentence, either. How does one leave “the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life”? That sure ain’t what I’m learning in the seminary!

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    I suspect he was trying to say that (unlike some men we read about in the papers) he wasn’t kicked out of ministry, but left of his own accord for other reasons.

    Dcn. G.

  • midwestlady

    This is true.

  • midwestlady

    Agree wholeheartedly.

  • midwestlady

    Correct. Diocesan priests don’t take vows of poverty. They make promises of obedience to their bishop. Most priests in the USA are diocesan.

  • midwestlady

    This is also true. There is a certain percentage of the population that has trouble with the lure of credit cards. I think that’s the real point here.

    I know personally that people do give priests a lot of things, and if you find yourself in a restaurant with one that you’re expected to pay the bill. I don’t think their salaries are unduly low, given the fact that so many of their needs are already filled by the diocese and the parishioners.

    Credit card over-use can get a person in a lot of trouble quickly. It can be really dangerous for some people, and the others need to use caution. The idea of just presenting a card and getting whatever you want today-right now-is very attractive.

  • midwestlady

    I agree, it’s hard to say that in a sentence no matter how you say it. I don’t think you can draw too many conclusions from it, for that reason.

  • midwestlady

    Dioceses are getting more discerning about this issue, since it’s actually not all that uncommon. We had the same thing happen here in a parish not far from my house. Coincidentally, it was about the same amount. I don’t know where the priest is now. The diocese requires more in the way of paperwork & accounting practices now, I do know that.

  • midwestlady

    This is correct in business. In many corporations, there are strict rules for dealing with the different classes of funds, especially since some of the money scandals of the early 2000′s. Small items are often donated rather than sold for this reason–sale creates small amounts of “soft money” which then no one wants to touch. A person can get into absolutely huge amounts of trouble for financial improprieties in a big company. Even the impression of improprieties is very, very hazardous.

  • midwestlady

    Yes, and even donations are handled in a crazily haphazard fashion. Even using the collection basket is like passing the hat in a coffee shop. I often wonder how much of what gets into the basket gets into the ledger. How much training do the ushers get?

    As FrMichael says, this and other policies, seem to me to be a situation ripe for disaster. It is said that good fences make good neighbors. Wouldn’t it be kinder to, and safer for, people involved if there were better procedures?

  • midwestlady

    One of the things about these strict money-handling policies in companies: It helps people to assure safety and sensible handling when dealing with company money. It’s actually a comfort, not a threat. You know someone can’t say something about the way you’ve handled funds, because it’s been done correctly and the money’s going where it’s supposed to go. When you work hard and you like your work, you want the company to make sense and prosper. It’s a good thing.

  • midwestlady

    You know, you can expect the ushers to slip the basket into a bag with a non-reusable seal before taking it into the back room, and the certify your accountant and their assistant as the ONLY persons to unseal the bags, followed by a notary signature by the assistant who’s been authorized as a notary. Procedures like this are performed in retail sometimes when money has to be transferred from one place to another. These precautions actually work very well. It would be in the Church’s interest to do something like this.

  • midwestlady

    In place of being a notary, the assistant could be certified by the diocese as a having an authorized signature as far as the diocese goes. This could be a really good thing for the parish to have all around for a lot of records purposes.

  • midwestlady

    There are lots of reasons why priests shouldn’t stay in the same parish for decades, but this is one of the big ones, it seems to me. This is particularly true since the parish often has no other way in place to verify what’s going on.

  • Deacon Greg Kandra

    In my diocese, priests serve in parishes for five years at a time, for up to 10 years, max. (12 for pastors).

    I don’t know anyone who has been in one place longer than that — and usually, it’s much shorter.

    Dcn. G.

  • midwestlady

    We have some priests who’ve been at the same place for decades here, so that’s not uniform diocese to diocese, I guess.

    There are pros and cons to both views, I understand. A person doesn’t get to know the priest as well if he stays a shorter time, and maybe the priest is lonelier, I don’t know. But the upside is that parishes have more accountability and people tend to transfer their allegiance to the parish rather than the personality of a particular priest, which is sometimes not and issue, but sometimes it is. And perhaps it’s better for the priest to rely on Providence more and less on the certainties of tenure, but then that’s just a hunch. I’m not a priest.

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  • PaulJames

    Wow, sounds like many do not trust their pastor and priest with the finances!

    My pastor goes above and beyond the call of duty to Our Parish! He shovels snow in the winter, paints, helps with the garden, is often seen with a broom and garbage can cleaning the outside of the rectory, church, convent, school and school yard to help save money! He takes out the garbage on the days of pick-up and keeps the inside of church looking great! We are thankful for his going above the call of duty. I am certain he is not the only pastor/priest doing so!
    Maybe if some of the bloggers making comments about their pastor stopped and helped things would be different! Hey many only take care of a small house, the pastor takes care of a lot more, besides our SPIRITUAL HOMES!!!! Stop complaining and gossiping and help the poor men!

  • John Penta

    I’m not sure it’s about not trusting them. It sure isn’t in my case. It’s that, well, wow, priests and pastors handle a lot of money (I’m sorry, but six or seven figures is a lot to me) with basically no training and usually very little accountability (do most dioceses audit yearly, or just when there’s a change in who the pastor is?). Even the best of them could easily get into severe trouble, and the parishioner who donates even a few dollars in the collection basket every Sunday has a rightful expectation that the money they donated will be stewarded properly.

  • GlensFallsCitizen

    “I left the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life”. I would doubt this very much. If this is the truth, I’ll eat my hat. Contact the Post Star in upstate NY (Glens Falls area)for more information. The St. Marys Church parishoners should have plenty to say. Here is a passage from an editorial in the Post Star: “Doesn’t the parish have the right to know why its pastor left without warning? Don’t they have the right to know the circumstances behind an allegation that their priest “borrowed” $4,500 from church coffers to buy concert tickets for his personal use?” For the record, the pastor being referred to his none other than Philip Cioppa. Perhaps the owners of the company where he is principal should take a closer look at this guy’s background. I wouldn’t believe anything this guy says, and I certainly wouldn’t invest a nickel with him.

  • Faith

    I have often wondered if priests get training on how to deal with money. Parishes are like running A big nonprofit. It just seems crazy not to educate them for their job as administrator and manager!

    I am very happy that our pastor is so transparent and responsible. He does listen to our finance committee. He is a most humble man with a true servant’s heart. He is up to say the 6:15a.m. Mass every a.m. And he can often can be seen locking up the church and school at 11:00 at night. He’s owned the same low end car for the 11 years he’s been our pastor. Under his guidance our parish is solvent. Both school and church are doing well. We tithe as well. The top 5 percent of each Sunday collection goes to designated charities voted on by the parish committee. Thank God for such a hardworking and competent manager! He is completely devoted to his vocation. We’ve got a keeper!

  • Elaine S.

    “I left the priesthood in excellent standing to pursue other avenues in life” is probably just his way of saying “Before you jump to any conclusions — no, it didn’t have anything to do with a sexual abuse allegation.”


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