COLUMBIA — During this year’s traditional message for Lent, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, head of the Vatican charity office, warned donors to verify the uses of their donated money.
Questions about how donations are used have increased in recent years as more churches and faith communities are reporting financial misdeeds by clergy, staff and parishioners.
Steve Jacobs, a co-founder of the St. Francis Catholic Worker Community in Columbia, said the organization has an open-door policy for its donors. “People are welcome to come and see how their money is being used,” he said. The majority of donations received are used to pay utility fees and other bills for the St. Francis House for homeless men, the Lois Bryant House for homeless women and the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen.
Last month, the organization discovered that Lana Jacobs, another co-founder, had failed to pay the monthly utility bills of the organization’s buildings, resulting in some disconnect notices. It also was discovered that Jacobs had used the Lois Bryant House as collateral for a real estate loan. She said she used the money to help others pay their monthly bills.
No criminal charges have been filed against Lana Jacobs.
The St. Francis Catholic Worker Community abides by the practices set by the Catholic Worker Movement, which lauds its lack of central authority or financial structure.
Since the accusations, the St. Francis Community has adopted new regulations to help instill some financial oversight. After consulting accounting firms, the organization now requires two people to oversee the finances.
Sister Agnes Schlereth of Sacred Heart Catholic Church said that Sacred Heart has donated money to St. Francis in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
“We’re bewildered and shocked, ... but we don’t want to take sides or hold judgments,” Schlereth said.
Despite the accusations of embezzlement, St. Francis leaders remain confident that their charity programs will survive and continue to benefit Columbia.
“The work will continue,” Steve Jacobs said. “We’re not saints; we’re just human beings trying to achieve something good.”