by Lawrence Downing

In Orange County California, where I live, we have witnessed a plethora (what a great word!) of people accused of bilking individuals and corporations out of tens of millions of dollars.   A significant number of the alleged perpetrators are associated with religious or not-for-profit organizations. Some of these individuals have been convicted, others have pled guilty and others await trial.

Kinde Durkee, a long-time Democratic Party treasurer, pleaded guilty to cleaning out the campaign coffers of somewhere between 10 and 50 clients of between $7 and $50 million dollars. Victims included Sen. Diane Feinstein, Rep. Loretta Sanchez and her sister, Rep. Linda Sanchez.

Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), according to the March 23, 2012 Los Angeles Times, is embroiled in a legal battle involving Brittany Koper, granddaughter of TBN co-founder Paul Crouch Sr.

Koper was fired after having served for less than four months as TBN’s financial director.  The suit, filed in Orange County Superior Court by Joseph McVeigh, uncle of Koper’s husband, Michael Koper, who was himself a high ranking TBN officer, alleges that TBN principles have perpetuated massive financial fraud and lavish spending, including a $100,000 motor home for TBN director Janice Crouch’s dogs. The suit alleges that Koper’s termination came after she discovered “’illegal financial schemes’” amounting to tens of millions of dollars, and blew the whistle on these schemes.

Add to these accounts the Schuller family debacle that resulted in the bankruptcy of the ministry and transfer of ownership of Crystal Cathedral to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. It is still up in the air whether the $57 million sale of the property will provide payment to the dozens of creditors who are left holding the bag for millions of dollars in unpaid bills racked up by Schuller’s ministry, much of it to produce the elaborate Crystal Cathedral programs, including the Glory of Easter and Glory of Christmas.

With the above as antecedent, a front page of the May 6, 2012 The Wall Street Journal Sunday, published as part of the Orange County Register, had my attention. It began: “Trust in the Lord…But Check Out the Church.” Reporter Veronica Dagher’s opening sentence, “Heaven help us,” set the stage for an unfolding account of how unscrupulous people use religion as a vehicle to scam trusting people out of their money.

Dagher reports that disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, now out of prison, has renounced the prosperity gospel he once preached. If only people paid attention to what he says, I thought.  Unfortunately, as Dagher documents, churches still provide a fruitful venue for scammers, con artists and common crooks. And why not?  Money given by the faithful is as good as any other cash, and there is a lot to draw from, states the article. To be specific, churchgoers and others are expected to donate $569 billion to Christian causes this year world-wide.  The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA estimates that of this amount, about 6%, or $35 billion, will end up in the hands of embezzlers, tax evaders or unscrupulous ministers who enjoy the high life at the expense of those who believe they are giving to God’s work.  This is the gold at the end of the rainbow to an enterprising con artist or sanctimonious parson. (Be assured that not every person who has stolen from a religious organization began as a crook. There is often an incremental process, a “reasonable” rationale, a bargain that “it will only be this time, then I’ll pay it back.”)

“So,” asks Dagher, “how can you make sure your donation goes to the right place and what else should you consider before giving to your church or other house of worship?” Suggestions include:

Ask questions and check out the organization. (Churches, unlike many other non-profit organizations, are not required to file 501 ( c ) (3) tax forms.) Question how the funds will be used and request an audited statement.  Ask who is responsible for making the financial decisions, and what are the procedures for collecting, depositing and accounting for the money. One person should not have control over financial matters. Find out who is on the finance committee and ask one of the members to explain how the church manages its funds and who monitors how the funds are spent. 

If people you talk to are defensive, evasive or are unwilling to answer your questions, this may be a clue funds aren’t being used as the donor intended.  Members of the Adventist Church  donate millions to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and organizations who depend on Adventists for their funds. Some churches and para-church organizations provide little or no verifiable information on how funds are used. Remember: Ask and demand verification.

Affinity fraud is another effective method to separate a church member from his or her money. “I love the Lord and His church. I’m only doing this because God has called me to this work. You can help me further this gospel work.”  And the pitch for the bucks begins. When you hear these or words like them, put on your running shoes, take off in the opposite direction from the speaker and keep running! Run at double speed if the pitch comes from a preacher who promises the loan is only for a short time or the investment can’t go wrong.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are stolen from well-meaning people who are scammed by skilled con artists who pose as sincere church members. I have witnessed the results when church members have lost their savings to these frauds. They have the key words and phrases down pat and they dump their piety upon unsuspecting church members, bleed them dry and take off with bags of cash. Some of these charlatans can pray like an angel, give testimonies like one of the apostles, and rip people off like a professional bandit.

The rules: trust but verify. And if it sounds too good to be true?