Catholic insurance provider stresses early response, documentation

COLUMBIA — Actions as simple as making sure a stairway is well lit or that church collection money is placed in a tamper-proof bag can save parishes thousands of dollars and countless hours of work and worry.

That was the main message at two Catholic Mutual seminars held Nov. 11-12 at St. Joseph Church in Columbia and St. Joseph Church in Charleston.

Catholic Mutual is the insurance provider for the Diocese of Charles ton. The seminars focused on insurance issues that parishes might face, including workers’ compensation claims, workplace safety, and preventing losses due to fraud or embezzlement.

Rocky Hughey, an attorney in the Columbia office of McAngus Goudelock and Courie, LLC, spoke on the basics of workers’ compensation laws in South Carolina. He stressed the importance of responding quickly when employees file claims, treating injured employees compassionately, and on documenting everything related to a claim.

“The important thing when we look at the diocese as a whole is to make sure we’re treating employees with respect, and working hard to get them back to work as quickly as possible when possible,” Hughey said.

Ken Winter of Cath olic Mutual-Omaha gave a presentation on reducing employee injuries. He said it was important for every parish to have an employee safety policy, and that concern for safety must be stressed throughout the parish, from clergy to volunteers.

Terri Brisson, director of parish and school accounting and bank services for the Diocese of Charleston, gave a session on safe collection practices.

Brisson discussed the importance of protecting funds raised through collections and capital campaigns. She cited news stories from around the country over the past decade that described massive cases of embezzlement from Catholic churches by anyone from clergy to office employees.

She referenced a survey released in early 2007 by Villanova University in which 85 percent of Catholic parishes who responded had discovered some form of embezzlement in the previous five years, including 11 percent that reported losses of more than $500,000.

“Our goal is to develop a heightened level of awareness that this can happen, not suspicion and not paranoia,” Brisson said. “We want to instill confidence in parish communities through well-controlled collection processes. Transparency is a huge word for parishes and dioceses when it comes to handling funds. We want to show we’re being good stewards of this money.”

Brisson said some of the most important precautions included making sure that more than one person is always present when funds are counted, and using special tamper-proof bags to hold the funds once they are collected. The bags are available through some banks and office-supply stores, and have numbered tabs that can quickly indicate if the bag has been tampered with.

Brisson said a good motto to follow when handling funds is “Trust, but verify.” She also recommended that parishes periodically change the people responsible for counting collection money, but acknowledged that is not always possible at smaller churches where staff and volunteers are limited.

The diocese wants to warn parish employees of the dangers of embezzlement, said Tracy Bates, claims and risk manager for Catholic Mutual.

“We’re trying to be as proactive as we can. That’s why we wanted them to hear stories of what’s happened around the country,” Bates said. “We’re trying to head it off at the pass.”

Bates said a session on fidelity insurance coverage by Jeff Dorsey of Travelers, which involves claims for crime and fraud, was important because many church bookkeepers and other employees don’t realize their responsibility in such cases.

“Most people are baffled that they have to prove a claim when it comes to crime coverage,” Bates said. Many people do not realize they have to investigate and check that deposit statements are correct, she said.

The Catholic Mutual seminars are held once a year, and Bates regularly tries to address insurance issues that affect different groups of employees. Past topics have covered maintenance, loss protection and coverage provided by the diocese.

She said the importance of safety was one of the most important lessons offered by the two recent seminars.

“One thing they were not aware of is that the number one cause of workers’ compensation claims in the state is slips, trips and falls,” Bates said. “I think they came away from it realizing how important it can be to find a way they can prevent those accidents. By doing simple things like making sure areas are free and clear or putting good treads on steps, they can really improve the working environment for their employees.”