Ten years ago, as a novice of a religious community in a distant city that I’ll call Rivertown, I made friends with a fellow novice, whom I’ll call Christine. I dropped out before final vows, got a job with the government, and moved to a suburb of the capital. Christine made her profession, and three years ago her superior sent her to Rome to work on a doctorate in theology.
On her way back to Rivertown this summer, she stopped over with me for a day. I had bought a laser printer a few months before, but still had my old dot matrix. Christine needed a good printer for the summer to work on her dissertation, and I reluctantly lent her my new one. Two weeks later, she called and said the printer was not working, and I faxed her instructions for getting it fixed under the warranty. Last week, on her way back to Rome, Christine dropped off what I assumed was my printer. But when I unpacked it, I noticed that my name, which I had engraved in an inconspicuous spot, was missing, and the serial number confirmed that the printer is not mine.
I called Christine, and she told me the same make and model printer as mine had been on sale at a store in Rivertown. Rather than take the trouble of getting mine repaired, she had purchased a replacement with cash, and then got her money back by turning my printer into the store as defective merchandise, pretending it was the one she had purchased. Having used a fictitious name and address, she thought there was no problem. I said I would have to return the one she left with me to the store she got it from and try to get mine back. I explained that I had sent the manufacturer the card that came with my printer and has its serial number on it, and also that the printer has my name engraved on it. But Christine said I should not be so worried about getting into trouble, refused to tell me the name of the dealer, and urged me to forget the whole thing. When I continued to press her, she got angry and hung up.
I checked with the manufacturer to try to get the name of the dealer who sold the printer I now have, saying I suspected it might have been stolen by someone who had left it with me. But they said they give that information only to law enforcement agencies, and if I thought I had stolen property, I should talk to the police about it.
I do not know what I should do. If I do nothing, I am keeping something that is not mine, and I am afraid I might get into trouble. I could contact the police in Rivertown and explain exactly what happened. But telling on Christine would be painful and also might cause trouble for her community, which I am anxious not to hurt. Then too, I am worried about Christine. Her casual attitude about what she did is appalling, and I wish I could think of a way to encourage her toward a real change of heart. But I am afraid our friendship is over and doubt she would listen to anything I could say to her.
This question is complex. First, the questioner is in possession of property that was obtained by fraud and should be returned to its true owner. She also is the victim of theft, and has the right to reclaim her own property. Second, she rightly wishes to do something about Christine’s wrongdoing, which seems to manifest serious character flaws. Third, the questioner is reasonably concerned that reporting Christine’s wrongdoing to the police in Rivertown will harm her community. Despite the second and third considerations, the questioner should fulfill her responsibility to return the stolen property by reporting the matter, unless she can find an alternative that would both fulfill that responsibility and better serve the other purposes.
By fraudulently obtaining a new printer in exchange for yours and delivering that new printer to you, Christine certainly has wronged both the dealer and you. Since the printer Christine left with you belongs to the dealer from whom she obtained it by her deception, it would be wrong for you to keep it, and, as you say, you might get into trouble. But if you return the new printer and claim back the one Christine stole from you by turning it in to the store, you should get it back provided the store still has it or can recover it. So, if making and obtaining restitution were the only morally significant consideration, contacting the police in Rivertown, as you have thought of doing, would be appropriate.
But you also are concerned, and I think rightly, about Christine’s soul and her community’s well-being. Moreover, your statement that it would be painful for you to turn Christine in suggests that, though you think your friendship with her is over, you still feel some affection for her and/or wish to be loyal to her, and are reluctant to initiate a process that might eventually lead to her being dealt with as the criminal she apparently is. Although these considerations are weighty, I do not think they can justify inaction on your part. Making appropriate restitution also is important, and, though you probably are not in great danger of getting into trouble with the law for keeping stolen property, such trouble would be so serious for you that even a small risk of it is important. Besides, Christine actually might benefit if she were convicted of her crime and punished, since that might lead her to reflect and change for the better. Therefore, it seems to me that, unless you can think of and carry out an alternative you believe will better meet your responsibilities, including that of returning the printer Christine left with you to its owner, you should communicate with the Rivertown police without delay.
While you may be able to think of other possibilities, I suggest three for your consideration.
First, you might discuss your problem with the police where you live, or, perhaps better, ask a priest to do so on your behalf. Perhaps they would obtain from the manufacturer the name of the store that sold the printer Christine left with you, so that you could contact that store directly and try to resolve the matter, as you had thought of doing. If you manage to work things out in such a way that Christine does not suffer the possible legal consequences of her action, you could tell her afterwards what you had done for her, express your deep concern about her behavior, and exhort her to think and pray about it. Still, if you pursue this course of action, you almost certainly will have to reveal Christine’s identity, and the store may well prosecute her.
Second, you might contact the (or a) superior of Christine’s community in Rivertown, talk the matter over, and, if that person seems trustworthy and is cooperative, turn the entire problem over to her. Indeed, if you already know and trust such a person there, you might simply write her a letter explaining what happened, send her the letter along with the printer, and ask her to deal with the various aspects of the problem—including, of course, retrieving your own printer for you. Provided you are confident that the superior will see to it that the printer is returned to the store, sending it to her will meet your duty in that respect; at the same time, this approach is most likely to safeguard the community’s interests. Above all, if Christine’s superior is sound and capable, she is likely to be more able than anyone else to get her to take stock and undergo the change of heart that seems necessary. I say “seems” because, in the circumstances, Christine’s behavior is so bizarre that it might be a symptom of psychological stress rather than bad character.
Third, if you lack confidence in Christine’s superior or superiors—and especially if you think her behavior might be related to wider problems in the community—you might contact the bishop of Rivertown or, if he has one, his vicar for religious, and perhaps turn the matter over to him.
Finally, considering Christine’s behavior toward you, your concern for her and apparent lack of resentment manifest meekness and readiness to forgive. If you persist in that attitude and pray for her, perhaps your friendship will not be over. At least, if you both die in God’s friendship, you will be friends again in heaven.