Embezzlement Charged in Panama Conference
13 November 2022 |
The treasurer of the Metropolitan Conference of Panama, Mr. Ovidio Abdiel Guerra, has been removed from his position after being accused of a misappropriation of funds.
In a Zoom meeting on Sunday, September 11, 2022, conference president Eluvinio Castrellon explained the departure of the treasurer to the church elders of the conference, during which Elder Castrellon affirmed that Mr. Guerra had been removed from his functions for embezzlement.
In the meeting Elder Castrellon disassociated himself from the situation, and said he bore no responsibility: “My hands are clean, and I am innocent until proven guilty” (though some attendees noted that conference funds can’t be moved without authorization by the president.)
Elders on the call told Adventist Today that Elder Castrellon did not specify the exact amount of the loss because “the investigation is still ongoing.” Sources have named an amount around US$247,000, though some claim the figure could be higher.
Elders were urged to return to their congregations and calm church members in the face of rumors already circulating. They were also warned that they “should not believe many things that were circulating on the internet.”
Confirmation & information
An administrator (who requested anonymity) interviewed by Adventist Today confirmed that the treasurer was removed from his position for embezzlement. “The organization is run by human beings,” he said, “and these things happen.”
He said that Mr. Guerra had signed a legal agreement to return the money to the conference.
When asked about the impact of this situation on the membership, the administrator admitted that “the church will be negatively affected”—but he also acknowledged that “transparency and sincerity are important” in addressing this kind of scandal.
He denied rumors that anomalous transfers of conference funds to personal accounts had been detected in 2020 and 2021 audits conducted by the General Conference Auditing Services (GCAS).
Adventist Today contacted dismissed treasurer Guerra by telephone, and he denied the accusations against him. To the claim that he had committed to returning the money, he replied, “I do not have any money to return.”
“It is this administration that is problematic,” he added. He denied having been fired, claiming that he left on his own “because I have completed my term and activities.”
He also denied rumors that the General Conference Auditing Service had detected problems in conference finances. “In my last audit, I came out well,” he said.
In response to questions about accusations of embezzlement, Mr. Ovidio said, “I know many things.”
Adventist Today phoned conference president Elder Castrellon. He refused to comment, and hung up the phone.
To date, the Panama Metropolitan Conference has been sparse with details, giving only verbal, partial, and ambiguous information. Elders and other stakeholders have yet to see printed financial reports. When an Inter-American Division (IAD) auditor was questioned about the lack of transparency and lay activism compared to the North American Division (NAD), his answer was: “We do not do things the same way as the NAD. Inter-America is Inter-America and North America is North America.”
Any embezzlement of funds would likely have taken place during 2020 and 2021, while the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Central America. During that period the government of Panama decreed a shutdown of the country and a mandatory quarantine. This caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and an increase in food subsidies known as “bono alimentarios.” Many Adventists lost their jobs. Personal income was affected, along with tithes and offerings to the church.
According to sources, Elder Castrellon remains in his position as president, though without authority to sign checks or move money. Tomas Saenz has been appointed interim treasurer.
It appears that the conference leaders are delaying dealing with the matter openly for now. The current administration comes up for reelection in the Quadrennial Session scheduled for March 2023. The Conference Executive Committee has voted to let the remaining officers continue until the scheduled constituency meeting.
The General Conference Working Policy stipulates that a special constituency session can be called if requested by 75% of the churches in the Conference through the church boards. Said one Latin American member to Adventist Today, “In the United States enough members would know this policy that they would organize to hold the officers responsible sooner rather than later. This is unthinkable in Latin America. Church members are not informed that they have this kind of representative authority.”
According to the statistics of the General Conference, in 2020 the Metropolitan Conference recorded a tithe collection of US$1,822,564, as well as US$725,874 in other offerings.