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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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