Integrity Matters
September 3, 2003

Charitable gifts require new study

Question: (S-012)

Dear Jim:

I am having a problem reconciling what is happening in certain parts of organized religion, and the various scandals, including the latest pedophilia mess. Here is my dilemma: If I stop giving to my church out of concern that its leaders are using the money irresponsibly and unethically in dealing with these scandals, then what about worthwhile charitable activities helped by my church donations?


Integrity is at the heart of the issue. It appears that current administrative costs in some churches are high and that some of these religious institutions and charities have engaged in practices that turn off many people, including you. Some have used donations to make settlements to fight their legal conflicts instead of using the funds for the named purposes of the institution. Their decisions to spend financial resources for one purpose after raising the funds for a very different purpose lack consistency and integrity.

Recently, millions of dollars were earmarked in Massachusetts to pay settlements related to lawsuits directed at ordained priests who abused young people. It is unthinkable that the caring and generous parishioners who donated those millions of dollars intended for their sacrificial giving to pay for legal problems created by such destructive behaviors. If this were a business transaction, it might be called "bait and switch:" The buyer is shown one product and asked to pay for it, only to be provided something very different, worth a great deal less.

The example to which you refer by your question, namely, that of pedophilia, has been one of the most disturbing. However, responsible parish councils, pastors and their congregations are working through that known set of problems. It seems probable that the involved religious institutions and other social service organizations will emerge wiser and with new and stronger self-regulating processes. It is also true that our society has a network of socially responsive and critical services that are sustained by organized religion.

These charities do a lot of good for people who might have no other place to turn.

You may, of course, simply move your money to another church or charity. That is quick and direct and has the virtue of removing you from any need to get involved with those who have disappointed you. You need to decide if the greater good is served by cutting off the charities with known, visible problems, and shift the money to charities with which you have less connection, but whose reputations are, for now at least, unblemished.

Another and perhaps more prudent approach might be to get involved directly with the institutions you support - organizations engaged in work relevant to your interests. Your involvement might improve their administrative and professional performance. The larger safety net provided by your institution is thereby protected and even improved.

If leaders of charities you support remain unresponsive to the need for change, then your issue becomes very clear, and you will very likely move your charitable giving to more responsive providers.

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