Church Members Sue after Doomsday Fails to Occur

by Jesse Galef –

Someone is suing the church. No, it’s not the Catholic Church and it’s not about the whole “raping children” thing. In Australia, the Agape Ministries used claims about a doomsday to trick the congregation into donating. The predicted doomsday didn’t happen (as you might have noticed). Now, two particular members who donated a combined $1.4 million want their money back.

That plaintiff and another former church member, Martin Penney, are suing pastor Rocco Leo and two of his associates, Joe Venziano and Mari-Antionette Veneziano.

They want their money back, claiming they handed over more than $400,000 and $1 million respectively to the church based on lies about a doomsday scenario.

A lawyer representing both plaintiffs, David Riggall, told the hearing it was possible the suppressed case may be resolved without going to trial.

I know there’s an impulse to blame the victims. Let’s get it out of our system: yes, it was foolish to believe the claims in the first place.

But I feel bad for them. They were taken in by a dangerous meme and exploited by a devious pastor. They truly believed that giving the pastor their money was the right thing to do. We need to spread critical thinking and skepticism to help make this sort of thing less likely.

Ok, I’ll admit that I chuckled a bit at the situation. But the end of the article sobered me up in a hurry:

Ms Baligod said she believed many other people wanted to come forward with civil claims, but were scared. “A lot of them have been threatened by insiders, with death threats as I understand it,” she said.

Ugh. It’s bad enough to con people out of their money. But if the allegations of death threats are true, it’s a whole new level.

(Via Jonathan Turley.)

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • TGrin

    Is there anyway we can help? I mean as far as “we don’t care if you’re religious or not, its wrong to abuse trust” and lend these guys and the rest of that clergy some aid with the case? Emotional support. They must have huge cognitive dissonance going on, and that’s very stressful. No one should feel ashamed for being fooled by a snakeoil salesman.

  • Grimalkin

    Victim blaming in these situations is not just cruel, it’s dangerous as well.

    When I took some psych electives back in my university days, we did a section on cult behaviour. Are there people who are just really gullible? Sure. But many cultists are very intelligent people, people who are not gullible in the least.

    It’s like an optical illusion. It doesn’t matter how smart or savvy you are, your brain gets tricked. There’s not much you can do at that point. Cults use all sorts of strategies and, as smart as I think I am, I am not convinced that I wouldn’t fall for it given the “right” conditions.

  • DrMatt

    I am amazed that two people are suing. Historically, whenever a prophesy is proven false, the group rationalizes it and continues. Look at 7th Day Adventists, Christian Science, etc. There may be hope for this world.

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  • gerryfromktown

    Just why would you give $1.4M to a church preaching the imminent arrival of doomsday? Was the church selling passes to heaven? What goes through someone’s mind when they fall for this? Really, I want to know.

  • http://sleeplessinleiden.wordpress.com Andrew

    Wasn’t it kind of a death threat to start with?

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  • Matt

    @gerryfromktown
    It’s like social security, only your benefits kick in postmortem.

  • Jason

    How about, besides skepticism and rational thinking, we also spread the message: “Never, under any circumstances, give money to a guy named Rocco.”

  • keddaw

    Doomsday cult members intimidated by death threats

    Come on, that’s a headline if ever I saw one.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    “gerryfromktown” beat me to it. I was going to ask what exactly is the purpose of giving money away during a doomsday scenario. And now I don’t have to. :)

  • Aaron

    Good, they should sue. I think that every church that gets money for spreading bull should be sued for fraud when their predictions don’t come true. I mean, that is the difference between this and a fortune teller? Aren’t fortune tellers illegal in many places?

  • Aaron

    Oh great. These same guys are allegedly passing out young girls to members and hoarding guns as well.
    I wonder if they are suing because they did not get any little girls.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/21/2905983.htm

  • http://thishollowearth.wordpress.com/ Victor

    I certainly hope this gets to court, and is not settled outside of it. A binding legal decision needs to get made: are churches responsible for what they tell their congregations? Are they held to the same standards of truth as everyone else. Most religious doctrine would not be touched, of course (too esoteric and vague), but literal things like the age of the earth and the causes of homosexuality are often flat out lied about in churches, leading to many people’s confusion.

  • Maliknant

    A Christian and his money are soon parted.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    @Jason – You beat me too it. The first thing that made me chuckle was the names (particularly living in Philly). Don’t give money to Rocco, especially when he has “associates.”

  • joe c

    Just like the lottery: a tax on stupidity.

  • Zach S.

    I’m a christian, sounds like this church is a HUGE scam. Just skimming this article makes me take a minute and question where two people this unintelligent can come up with 1.4 million dollars of any currency. Haha, I guess scientology isn’t the only money making psuedoreligous endeavor these days… (pretty sure I made up the word psuedoreligous solely for the purpose of this article, so don’t chastise me on grammatical discrepancies.)

  • Deiloh

    I wouldn’t mind getting some money back from my ex-church. Could buy a car.

  • Richard P.

    No one should feel ashamed for being fooled by a snakeoil salesman.

    Really why not? What happened to personal responsibility? What happened to if it’s to good to be true it probably isn’t?
    I can’t believe that on some level these people didn’t know it was a scam. To bad they were not intelligent enough to see the signs. Fools and there money are soon parted.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I think that they should certainly be embarrassed and really angry at being conned. I’m pleased that they aren’t too proud to admit it and thereby providing a lesson for others to learn.

    I’m not so sure of the legalities though. Let’s say that I claim that the world is ending and I must have all your money to please the gods. If you give me your money that is one thing. To get it back don’t you need to demonstrate that my claim was not only false but was malicious? Isn’t intent important in such a case? Only if I believed that the described scenario was false would I be taking money by deception. With these religious cons that is the difficult thing to prove.

  • http://beadknitter.blogspot.com beadknitter

    Cool! I wish more people would sue churches for false claims. They need to be held to a level of honesty that churches are not held to at all.

    As for the folks who are blaming the victims…I hope you never have to walk in their shoes.

  • Rich Wilson

    What does a doomsday church need with a million bucks?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYW_lPlekiQ

  • Lore

    “Cool! I wish more people would sue churches for false claims. They need to be held to a level of honesty that churches are not held to at all.”

    Is it not important to prove that the person/church/organization asking for money really didn’t think that the world was going to end and they needed x amount of money. If they really believed the claim then wouldn’t it not be legally damning or something?

    I dont really know, this is more of a question then anything because I dont know the laws on these sorts of things. Just curious ^.^

  • Matt

    I predict the world will end next Monday at 2:26pm. Please send $50 to my paypal account and I will see that you have a seat on the pontoon to Nirvana. This is the real deal! An angel told me.

  • Enrys

    I didn’t know Mr. Krabs was a Christian Pastor!

  • Charles

    If we can sue churches for their lies, then what about all those “dooms day” authors of the past and present who have made millions by selling books that claim they have figured out when the world will come to an end? In case you haven’t already heard the most recent predictions are for December 2012. Everyone wants to be the guy to figure this one out just so he can cash in on people’s fears. If the world is going to end tomorrow, big deal. There is NOTHING anyone can do to stop it. At best we can blast off into space and hope to find a similar “earth type” planet and establish a new colony there. Religion will not save anyone, science will. You can sit on your ass and wait for “God” to do something or you can be proactive and do something yourself.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com/about-the-contributors/ Brittany

    This was forwarded around, I decided it was an idiot tax and went on with my life.

    I don’t know a whole lot about AU law, but if this was the US, churchgoers would potentially have a few claims depending on the facts.

    1) they could claim an implicit contract was formed when the church promised something (doomsday) in exchange for money. When the church did not deliver (ironically, perhaps because of something that would qualify as an act of god– called a “force majure” in the legal world)the contract would be unfulfilled and the money due back to the participants.

    2) The Church could say that they were offering more of an “insurance policy.” If you don’t crash your car or get sick at the end of your policy, you don’t get your car/health insurance back. Similarly, just because doomsday didn’t occur doesn’t mean the money wasn’t well spent insuring against that possibility.

    Both of the above assume that everyone involved was being honest (the church though there was a real possibility doomsday would occur). More likely it was just fraud.

  • TXindie

    This is exactly why I quit giving to churches a long time ago. All they do is lie and getaway with it. Why do churches need multi-million dollar buildings? I don’t remember anywhere in the bible that Jesus preached in some massive multi-rubble building! He didn’t even ask for money or offerings at any of his sermons. Monetary offerings therefore are not Christian based. Quit giving your hard earned money to liars.

  • Mriana

    IMHO, the people who fell for the scheme should be kicking themselves for being so gullible in the first place. I’ll be surprised if they win their law suit though.

  • Baconsbud

    I don’t think they should get their money back. Anyone willing to buy into this type of claim made by a church should be held responsible for their foolish acts along with the church. I would say some secular charity should get the money and both the church and the people giving the money should be required to make sure all within the community should know what and why the money was given.

  • verygrumpyoldguy

    A remarkably large proportion of the world’s politicans and financiers secretly subscribe to my religion, of which the first two tenets follow:

    Letting a fool keep his money is a cardinal sin, punishable by poverty.

    Poverty is a cardinal sin, punishable by excommunication.

    No hoboes in my church, by damn!

  • muggle

    I hope they win.

    That said, every time I see one of these claims, whether it’s religious or idiots believing they’re pulling money out of their account for a bank examiner, I think how fucking stupid can you possibly be?

    People seriously need to learn some effing critical thinking skills no matter what they believe. So you believe in god? Why does this mean that any fool claiming to do likewise should be automatically believed and trusted? Of course, a con artist is going to take advantage of this. Why would you not ask yourself, what’s he trying to sell me still?

  • L.Long

    There is only ONE way to give money to g0d.
    Throw it up and he keeps what stays there.
    SORRY! NO sympathy here THEY WERE and probably still are stupid as a lump of schite. Unless they held a gun to his head then he was not really threatened. They were too stupid to read the simplest history book to see ALL doomsday BS is BS. I plan on trying to con the first 2012er I meet out of his money. I doubt I get it cuz I’m not very good at con, but they will be starting out idiots so I may have a chance.
    Hell I figured out the ‘give me your money’ church con when I was 7!
    Like some above I do hope they sue and win as it will set a precedent that will make a few of the holey con men step back and consider things – for 10 sec before they figure out a way around it.

  • Geek Gazette

    Wasn’t there a study done recently that suggested that a person’s brain sort of “shuts down” when dealing with a respected &/or charismatic speaker? I can’t remember where I read that, but it would be applicable here. The victims may have been highly intelligent people, but if they were religious believers and the cult leader was charismatic (most are) it is no wonder they made such poor decisions.
    It still doesn’t excuse their bad decisions, but it does make having sympathy for them a little easier. Most people, even the most brilliant among us, are at heart gullible. No matter how skeptical we are people want to trust and believe in others. In a religious environment that would be the minister, who then uses that trust, authority and the victims belief in religion to exploit them.

  • Valhar2000

    Victim blaming in these situations is not just cruel, it’s dangerous as well.

    I agree: it all too easily distracts us from all the other culprits. A scum-bag who takes advantage of idiots is as much of a scum-bag as one who takes advantage of geniuses.

  • http://www.thatpinkmouse.com/bloggy Jenny Bliss

    im suprised at the ignorance of some people belving falling for somthing like that makes them stupid, the majority of people can be fooled by very charismatic people, we as a species are natrualy trusting on people who are friendly (or at least friendly on the surface) and conmen usually play on that fact, when its an authority figure its even worse, good example, a policeman comes up to you and demands you turn out your pockets for whatever reason.. odds are your going to comply not out of fear but out of respect for that authority figure (the reason i bring that up of course is that there was a real case of somone dressing up as 1 getting people to do that and forcing them to part with their wallets without much question) from a psychological point of view we’re not exactly the hardist of creatures to fool if you know how and in fact those who think they cant be fooled are the easist ones to con, theres a whole other host of things you can play on with people of course like greed among other things if that link earlier about the other story is correct then that would suggest alot of it may be down almost to hard sale tactics which are pretty bad (and against the rules heh) but anyway a basic study of psychology is what you need for more detailed info lol minirant over ^_^

  • L.Long

    The ‘Victim blaming in these situations is not just cruel, it’s dangerous as well.’
    is a silly argument.
    we are not talking about a woman being raped while walking down an empty street.
    These people voluntarily joined, voluntarily gave up their money–and never asked ‘well its doomsday…why do they need my money???’
    If its not the ‘victim’ fault then every religious leader (conman) should be arrested and jailed for conning their followers. And if that was tried the FOLLOWERS – the victims – would try to beat you to the ground! They want to be conned, they pay to be continuously conned, they hate to think about what is being done and wallow in their delusion of eternity with absolutely no proof that it is true.
    They wanted it, they asked for it, and they got it. No one stopped them from thinking and leaving.
    I have not yet seen a con man TAKE your money like some thief with a gun. Every example I studied it is always the ‘victim’ who willingly, on purpose, without any real thought that GIVES the con man the money. And usually the ‘victim’ is motivated by intense greed either for more money or some other reward.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    @L.Long

    There are websites in existence that sell indulgences (or heaven reservations)

  • L.Long

    Yes Jeff as X-catlick I know about them.
    That is an excellent example of a great con.
    And a excellent example of the ‘non-victim’ just a really ignorant person.

  • http://www.myspace.com/timtationsmusic Tim D.

    I hope they win this case. I don’t know their whole story (or how this experience may have changed, or NOT changed, their views on religion and the establishment thereof), but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    It’s easy to call people’s beliefs stupid and then act like “they should’ve known better,” but I think that’s an unrealistic way to see this. The fact is that some people are raised with certain beliefs, and it can take a lot of difficult (and sometimes traumatic) effort to cause them to re-examine those beliefs. The fact that they are suing says to me that they actually DID at one point believe that they should give the money (for whatever reason, however stupid it may have been), simply because I can’t imagine a person being on “giving $400,000″ terms with someone whom they feel they would have any real reason to sue in the near future; so I believe that they were sincere in that respect. And on top of that, the fact that they’re suing instead of, say, rationalizing around the guilt of the church who conned them, says that SOMETHING has changed.

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com Michael Caton

    These people are rare in that they couldn’t partition their beliefs. That is, they actually put their money where their mouths were. Most of the time when people make silly claims, they manage to keep their belief categories separate. That’s why when you see something like this with an explicit date, you should always try to make a bet! It could be the world ending, the end of the theory of evolution, the end of psychiatry, anything – try to make a monetary bet. It ends with either a) more money in your pocket, b) the claimant shutting up or c) the claimant not taking the bait but looking really cowardly and dishonest. Disclaimer: I’ve not yet made a cent this way, but it’s ended a lot of hot-air-blowing sessions.


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