Years ago in South Chicago we had a young man who was our sacristan. He was a high school seminarian and I wanted to help him pay his tuition and other bills. We paid him to open the church on Sunday morning and to set up for Masses. Carlos (not his real name) came from a big family in the parish. His grandma was very involved in parish life, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, too. It was the kind of a family where they bought houses on the same block, and shared child (and elder) care among themselves.
In any case, in the archdiocese they’d come up with a numbered bag system to prevent people from getting sticky fingers around the collections. I’d had to fire one of our money counters early on so I eagerly adopted this system. Should I tell the story? Why not… Blondie (not her real name) had been counting the collection for years. She worked alone in a back office and she was a chain smoker. I started to get suspicious when she’d come back from vacation to count the Sunday collection. So, working with a seminarian, we counted the collection before Blondie got to it for a few weeks. Lo and behold, her count was a couple of hundred short every week. She got fired.
Back to the numbered bag system. The way it would work (and still does) is that the ushers put the collection in a numbered bag. They seal the bag shut, sign the bag, then write the number on an usher signature sheet and sign the record. Then they deposit the bag in a drop safe in the sacristy. A drop safe is the kind that has a drum on top of it, you put something in the drum and turn a handle, and whatever’s in the drum falls into the safe. Foolproof, no?
No. Carlos figured out a way to game the system. I got onto this by accident. One day I was in the sacristy and noticed some opened bags there. These are plastic bags and our counting teams would open them in the rectory. What was an open bag doing in the sacristy? Did the counting team bring them back into the church after they opened the bag? I checked with them, and they hadn’t returned bags to the church. What was going on?
I looked at the signature sheets and noticed that the signatures on the sheets were slightly different from the signatures on the bags. What the heck? Then it hit me. Carlos must be going to the rectory, getting empty bags. Then he must be going to the church after Mass on Sundays. He’s open the bags, switch the collection to a new bag (while lightening it up a bit), and write up a new usher signature sheet, forging the signatures on the sheet. Pretty clever, I thought. How to prove it?
I went up to the North side to a spy store. Who knew there was even such a thing. There was, and I bought a motion activated camera that looked like a fragrance dispenser (the kind you hang on the wall that sprays out air freshener once in a while). I put it in the safe and turned it on. Sure enough, I caught Carlos and had a video of the whole thing. Dang it. I was happy I caught the kid and sad for him and his family.
I called the police and talked to a detective. I told him what I’d found and asked him if he could come and scare the kid. You know, a fake arrest. He told me he couldn’t. Then he asked me how much he’d stolen. I had figured out that it was around $1500. “Father,” he told me, “That amount makes it a felony.” I was surprised to find that a felony was only $1000. Anyway, I decided that I’d call in his parents and let them know what happened.
After getting over the shock, the parents agreed to pay back the money. I asked Carlos’ mom and dad whether I ought to press charges or not. The dad had a felony conviction and begged me not to do it. He’d already been in jail and didn’t want his son to go away. The mom sat there quietly crying. Finally she told me to press charges. I got a knot in my throat and needed a minute. I met with the young man then and let him know my decision. I listened to the dad. As it turned out later, I should have listened to the mom. It was a mistake.
Turning kids into adults is tough. You can’t just turn a blind eye to what they’ve done. You can’t let them avoid paying the consequences of their bad acts. Nobody wants to see their children suffer. At the same time people have to learn to be accountable for their own actions. It’s part of being an adult. This can be dreadfully tough.
You never know how things are going to turn out. Trying to figure out what is in someone’s best interest doesn’t mean taking the path of least resistance. Sometimes it’s like picking up a cross and walking toward your own execution. Imagine Carlos’ mom. Still, this is what you sometimes have to do when you love someone.