Faith-Based Fraud

Atheist Revolution calls our attention to a recent story out of Columbus, Ohio, in which the Rev. David Thompson of World of Pentecost Church, along with several other church officials, have been named in a lawsuit filed by members of the congregation that accuses them of stealing almost $1 million in church money. According to the lawsuit, Thompson’s father George, who is also a defendant, told the plaintiffs that they had to forgive his son and accused them of being “children of the devil” if they pressed for answers about the missing money.

If these allegations are true, it would be only the latest in a long line of frauds and thefts that target the religious. Crimes of this nature are called “affinity fraud” by law enforcement, because they target members of a specific demographic group whose trust the fraudster tries to gain by passing himself off as one of them. However, when it comes to scams that specifically target religious people by using their belief as a lever, I have a better name: faith-based fraud.

Stories like this are not at all unusual or rare. Here are several others that are very similar.

From the Ottawa Citizen, Police warn church groups about fraud suspect:

Kingston police have issued a warning about a man accused of defrauding a couple of about $19,000, saying he may be targeting other religious group members in Eastern Ontario. Police said a man told a couple he met at a church group meeting that he led a support group for gambling addicts and would be receiving a government grant to start a group for Christian gamblers.

From a Fox affiliate in Tucson, Arizona, Former Baptist Foundation executives to be sentenced Friday:

Five former executives with the Baptist Foundation of Arizona are scheduled to be sentenced in Phoenix on Friday in what has been called one of the largest affinity fraud cases ever.

…The foundation was created in 1948 by the national Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention. It grew into an independent nonprofit organization that raised money to build churches and retirement homes.

Prosecutors said that in the 1990s, the foundation took advantage of 11,000 people – most of the elderly – promising them high returns in safe, faith-based investments.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune, Brazil evangelical churches face fraud inquiries:

Two Brazilian church leaders caught smuggling cash in a bible at Miami airport face a U.S. court this week in a case that raised concerns about financial fraud at fast-growing evangelical churches in Latin America’s largest country.

…Brazil has requested the extradition of the pair, who live a swanky life of luxury, on charges of money laundering, fraud and embezzlement.

From the North Texas e-News, Judge sentences family members who defrauded churches, ministries and religious organizations of approximately $62 million:

At trial, the jury found that Setser, a self-proclaimed former minister, exploited his connections to highly visible members of the evangelical Christian community to meet potential investors, legitimize IPIC’s operations and sell IPIC securities, ultimately defrauding investors of approximately $62 million in his elaborate Ponzi scheme.

Faith-based frauds like these are not isolated incidents, as much as some religious apologists would undoubtedly like us to believe otherwise. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that they are systematic and pervasive. A New York Times article from January, Embezzlement Is Found in Many Catholic Dioceses, reports on a survey by researchers at Villanova University which found that a shocking 85% of Roman Catholic dioceses had reported embezzlement in the last five years alone, with 11% reporting theft of half a million dollars or more.

In October alone, three large cases of embezzlement surfaced, including one in Delray Beach, Fla., where two priests spent $8.6 million on trips to Las Vegas, dental work, property taxes and other expenses over four decades.

…Most denominations have had cases of embezzlement, sometimes by top officials. In June, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. fired its second-ranking financial officer, Judy Golliher, after she admitted stealing money that church officials put at more than $132,000.

And, as the article notes, the Catholic church “has some of the most rigorous financial guidelines of any denomination”. How much more fraud, graft and embezzlement might there be among less stringently policed Protestant churches?

Another citation gives a hint. Back in December I wrote “Sex and Consequence“, pointing out that Salt Lake City, heart of the straitlaced, supposedly squeaky-clean Mormon church, leads the nation in web searches for pornography. As it turns out, that is not all the Mormons are known for, according to Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven:

Utah has been called the “fraud capital of the world” by the Wall Street Journal, and within the state, no place has more white-collar crime than Utah County. According to FBI agent Jim Malpede, at any given moment the FBI is investigating scams totaling $50 million to $100 million perpetrated by con artists… based in the county. The uncommonly high incidence of fraud is a direct consequence of the uncommonly high percentage of Utah County residents who are Mormons. When Saints are invited to invest in dubious schemes by other Saints, they tend to be overly trusting. Michael Hines, director of enforcement for the Utah Securities Division, told the Deseret News that in Utah County it is common for scammers to ensnare their victims by asking them to evaluate the proposed investment through prayer. (p.275)

There are even more examples of faith-based fraud that I could name. There are the Nigerian money scams that specifically target Christians. The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s newsletter, Freethought Today, has a section called the “Black Collar Crime Blotter” that lists arrests, convictions and lawsuits filed against members of the clergy, which typically takes a full-page spread of small print to list all of them. Most of these reports are about sexual abuse, but many concern frauds and embezzlement as well.

My point in listing all these crimes is not to imply that religion is false because many religious people are hypocrites. It is to highlight a more fundamental problem: a belief system that is based on faith, that praises people for making decisions not based on evidence and encourages the notion that the impossible will happen if only they believe strongly enough, has an intrinsic vulnerability to these kinds of crimes.

Most religious believers are told from childhood that their religion is the one true one, and that members of it are honest, good and trustworthy people and that God looks out for them. When a smooth-talking con artist then comes along, representing himself as a member of the same religious community and professing words of piety, of course he will find many willing victims.

Granted, the Bible and other holy books contain injunctions to beware of hypocrites; but their instructions on how to uncover a con artist are usually limited to one or two perfunctory tests to see if a newcomer knows the right code words, or advising religious believers to pray over the matter or use “spiritual discernment”. By encouraging believers to think that they have supernatural power to detect deception or that God will watch over them and keep them from going astray, these faith systems only make their adherents more vulnerable to being ripped off. And the problem is exacerbated by the hierarchical, authoritarian structure of church leadership, which discourages excessive questioning of those in power and leaves gaping accountability loopholes for clergy members who become corrupt or fall prey to fraud.

As long as faith-based decision making is encouraged and promoted, faith-based fraud will continue, and well-meaning theists whose gullibility has been carefully cultivated for somewhat different purposes will continue to be taken in by it. The only realistic way to stop fraud is to encourage skepticism, full accountability, and a strict adherence to the principles of evidence-based reasoning, but it is no surprise that so many religious denominations are wary of equipping their members with those tools. (“Be skeptical of the people who ask you for money and don’t give them anything unless they can prove that they can deliver what they promise” is, I think, a sermon that many clergy would be uncomfortable about delivering to their flock.) Instead, I suspect that the occasional fraud targeting their members is considered by many religious leaders to be an acceptable price to pay to keep tithes and donations flowing into their own collection boxes.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Dave

    “Be skeptical of the people who ask you for money and don’t give them anything unless they can prove that they can deliver what they promise” is, I think, a sermon that many clergy would be uncomfortable about delivering to their flock.

    You’d think, yet somehow I’m pretty sure that the cognitive dissonance that allows people in so many careers that require critical thinking to shut off that part of their brain on Sunday would allow such a sermon with nary a dangerous conclusion being drawn about the church itself.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    Excellent observations. And this may also explain the dramatic increase in fraud which has occurred under the current “faith-based” Administration in Washington. One example, 8.8 billion dollars from the Development Fund for Iraq, which the UN had entrusted to the U.S. Government, was converted into bricks of $100 bills, loaded onto pallets and flown to Baghdad where it was never accounted for. Faith-based all the way.

  • Michael Nietzsche

    I laugh with great joy when I read about the duped Krixtstains being ripped off! It does my heart good when I read about the already “duped on ‘dog’ crowd” being ripped off all in the name of their non-existant ‘dog’. I check your site just about every day…………so keep publishing stories like this. My hope is that one day all these f–king money grubbing televangelist will be taxed on their ILLEGAL Earnings and then thrown in prison……. Where they then can kneel down on their knees and pray to Geezus that the pain will stop from being f–ked in the ass by other prisoners…. like they have done to their “FLOCK” for so many years……….signed, Proud to be an ATHEIST!

  • Chris

    I think you’re overlooking the other source of religious fraud: cheap forgiveness. Many of these frauds aren’t just pretending to be members of those religions, they genuinely are. But they believe that no matter what they do, they remain good people because God is on their side and will forgive them.

    People whose evaluation of their own moral worth is based on their actions are likely to refrain from fraud because it would make them feel bad about themselves. People whose evaluation of moral worth is based on their relationship with God are willing to do a lot of things if they think God will forgive them (or it’s actually what God wants them to do).

    In other words, not only are the religious more vulnerable to being the victims of fraud, they’re also more likely to commit it.

  • Freeyourmind

    Very good post.

    I’d also like to make another point that’s proven itself here, and that’s in terms or morality and belief itself.

    If these preists, ministers, etc… TRULY believed what they were preaching….this wouldn’t happen. I honestly think deep down that a LARGE percentage of these people know that what they preach is, for lack of a better word, bull$hit. And therefore, they take advantage of their unique situation….showing in the end both a lack of belief and morality.

  • Alex Weaver

    *cringes at comment 3* in other news, I think “Faith Stealing” has a nice ring to it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I agree, Alex: the attitude displayed by Michael Nietzsche’s comment is not the kind I seek to encourage. There’s nothing good or worth celebrating about religious people falling victim to scams and frauds, and we shouldn’t be glad when it happens. Instead, we should be encouraging these people to become more rational and skeptical so that they’re not taken advantage of again. If that commenter reads my site regularly as he says he does, he should know that his attitude is contrary to the kind I promote.

  • James Bradbury

    Michael Nietzsche,

    I don’t think being aggressive or patronising to people you (and many of us) feel have got it wrong is in any way helpful. You wouldn’t like it if they treated you that way and to do so in return only makes you look unreasonable.

    I believe you do not need to become the monster in order to beat the monster.
    Try this: http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/2007/01/be-compassionate

    Unless, perhaps you’re a christian in disguise trying to make us look bad?

  • valhar2000

    Well, I do understand Michael Nietzsche’s opinion: I would rather that religious people were not so blinded by their faith and were thus able to defend themselves from fraud, but, frankly, seeing their excessive gullibility be punished is less unpleasant that it would be to see it go unpunished.

  • Alex Weaver

    Valhar:

    The major problem I have with that view is one of the same ones I have with the “let them eat cake” approach to social welfare. If, for example, the Breadwinner/King of His Castle stupidly decides to invest the family’s money in one of these harebraine schemes, it means that dependent family members will suffer as a result of poor decisions in which they had no say.

  • Polly

    “I laugh with great joy when I read about the duped Krixtstains being ripped off! It does my heart good… ”

    I was going to comment on the topic but instead…

    I feel bad for those poor, stupid people. I don’t like seeing anybody get ripped off. I know what it was like to give the benefit of the doubt to those who came “in the name.” Although, I nevertheless had the brains to see schemes for what they were even then. But, not everyone has their head on straight regardless of their worldview. Elderly people too are especially vulnerable. Reveling in schadenfreude is kinda’ sick.

    There is one sentence out of the Bible (my own family’s tradition) that I acutally still live my life by, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That never stopped being true in my mind. The Bhuddist version, the same but stated in the negative, also works well as a guiding principle. I wouldn’t laugh at my enemy if he fell, I’d help him up and, hopefully, end the animosity.

  • Andrew

    Michael Nietzsche. I am an atheist too, but unlike you I pity the honest people who are duped by televangelist vultures or their local clergy. I do not enjoy their misfortune and I take no pleasure in those few fraudsters who are caught getting raped by “Bubba”.

    Where is your compassion? Ethic of Reciprocity or “the golden rule”? I would rather have as a friend a deluded but devout theist than you.

  • NonProphet

    Michael Nietzsche:

    I think you’re ignoring the fact that most atheists are tolerant to amazing degrees, and no decent human being of any – or no – faith would wish suffering on others purely for their religious beliefs. That’s reserved for fundamentalist fanatics and zealots.

    This was horribly prejudiced and vicious on your part, and only serves to feed the “angry immoral nihilist” stereotype projected at atheists. Perhaps you should take the other posters’ advice and read up on the idea of compassion, before making another such post.

    ****Morality is nothing without compassion and tolerance.****


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