Fleecing the flock

From televangelist scams to fake church fundraising campaigns, the proliferation of religious fraud suggests that blind faith can be exploited for monetary gain.

In July, Father Amer Saka was charged with fraud in the alleged theft of more than $500,000 from a trust fund established to help Syrian refugees in London, Ont. “Police say Saka, of the St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church, allegedly obtained the money from more than 20 people under the guise of a sponsorship program to bring refugee families into Canada,” Canadian Press reported.

The arrest followed a five-month probe that uncovered victims in various locations in Ontario, the US “and other countries where refugees were trying to come to Canada,” CP said. The 51-year-old was charged with “fraud valued at more than $5,000 and an offence called possessing the proceeds of property or a thing valued at more than $5,000.”

Of note, a condition of the bail granted to Saka stipulated he was not allowed to frequent casinos until his case was heard. The London Free Press reported that Saka had admitted to gambling away more than $500,000 from the trust fund.

Until he came under suspicion in March, Saka had been a pastor of the church, whose parishoners tend to be first-generation immigrants from Syria or have roots in that part of the world. He told friends he had once ministered to prisoners in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, a credential that if true would have likely provided him with impressive spiritual credentials during the fundraising campaign, which needed to raise a substantial amount of money to be effective.

“Under the federal government’s private sponsorship program,” the Toronto Sun reported, “people who want to sponsor refugees must raise money to support the newcomers as they get settled. About $12,000 must be raised to sponsor one refugee, and $27,000 to sponsor a family. The money is used for rent and expenses during the first year the newcomers arrive.”

News of the charges was a shock to church members. Their primary concern was that, as a result of the fraud, refugee families would not be able to come to Canada. “But days after the scandal broke, the Hamilton Roman Catholic Diocese promised to facilitate any sponsorships started through Saka, a promise it [later] renewed,” the Free Press said.

Another likely result of Saka’s alleged malfeasance was a sense of disbelief that a trusted spiritual leader could act in such a crass manner. His lawyer, Iryna Revutsky, called him “a man of God [who] relies on God’s mercy ... during these difficult times.”

WHO COULD DEFRAUD A CHURCH?

There is an understandable assumption by churchgoers and those with a strong spiritual faith that the people they accept as their religious leaders are not only honourable men and women but, in fact, above reproach when it comes to honesty. Who would defraud a church or its members?

Unfortunately, the proliferation of religious fraud suggests that blind faith can be exploited by those with a need for money (such as a gambling addict) or a person, perhaps a sociopath, who perceives a flock as an easy target to fleece.

How prevalent is fraud within religious organizations? Far more than most people imagine, according to a March 2015 article in The Christian Post.

“The Dallas-based Trinity Foundation recently announced its plans to investigate religious fraud on a global scale following the release of research earlier this year indicating that religious fraud globally may total US$100 billion in the next decade,” The Post said. “In a recently released statement, the Trinity Foundation noted that for 2015 alone it’s estimated that international religious fraud will exceed donations to global missions. ‘The researchers estimate 2015 missions funding at US$45 billion, with religious fraud projected to exceed that at US$50 billion, a huge jump over last year’s US$39 billion,’ stated the foundation.”

While televangelists in the US are often the target of fraud investigations, few ever end up in court. One notable exception was evangelist Jim Bakker, who, along with his wife Tammy Faye, hosted a TV program called the PTL Club. At one point, it was estimated that viewers sent in US$1 million a week to support the various projects the couple promoted in their program.

In 1988, however, government officials caught up with Bakker and charged him with 23 counts of mail and wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. The charges were in connection to the selling of lifetime memberships at a luxury hotel.

From 1984 to 1987, Bakker and his PTL associates sold US$1,000 “lifetime memberships,” which entitled buyers to an annual three-night stay at a luxury hotel at Heritage Park, a Christian theme park in South Carolina. Prosecutors noted that tens of thousands of memberships had been sold for a single 500-room hotel. Almost US$3.5 million went to bonuses Bakker awarded to himself.

Bakker was originally sentenced to 45 years in prison for fraud but this was reduced to eight years on appeal.

“PAYMENT FOR CARE”

Large-scale frauds that prey on large numbers of faithful followers are obviously a significant contributor to the number of religious-based frauds. But much smaller ones seem to crop up with troubling frequency.

In September, a Maryland priest, John S. Mattingly, 70, was indicted on 20 counts of bank fraud for allegedly having deposited more than US$75,000 of charitable cheques from parishioners at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church into his personal retirement fund.

Mattingly’s scam was small change compared to what Rev. Nicholas Chervyatiuk allegedly did to an elderly follower who attended his Ukrainian Orthodox church in Chicago.

Chervyatiuk’s work included ministering to survivors of Nazi concentration camps who came to the US after the Second World War. In August, Chervyatiuk was accused by a public guardian of “having improperly taken more than US$500,000 from the savings of one of those displaced persons, a 93-year- old former church secretary diagnosed with dementia,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

The priest claimed the woman “wanted him to have her money, which he saw as payment for the care he provided [over 14 years] as her health and mental faculties failed.”

Chervyatiuk allegedly used the woman’s money to support two restaurants he ran with a convicted drug dealer, a hair salon and his portfolio of Chicago-area rental properties, according to probate court papers and separate land, business and court records, the paper said.

The priest obtained power of attorney over the woman’s affairs in March 2015, when she was diagnosed with dementia and moved into a nursing home.

“A North American church leader, the Rev. Victor Poliarny, told the Tribune it was ‘not acceptable’ for a priest to take a parishioner’s funds in a private transaction. Church authorities are seeking ‘official documents substantiating the accusation,’ Poliarny said. ‘Once we secure the official documents regarding this matter, the higher authority of the Kyiv Patriarchate will ensure proper punitive measures for the alleged behaviour.’ ”

CHURCH AS BUSINESS

Churches and those who have a strong and genuine religious set of beliefs can be particularly vulnerable to fraud. An obvious way for organizations to avoid being scammed is to operate the church as a business, with proper controls in place.

What types of fraud do churches typically fall victim to? “Marquet International, an independent investigating, consulting, litigation firm, conducted research specific to religious institutions in 2012 that provides greater detail in specific areas that fraud occurs,” the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners noted in a 2015 report.

“The research determined [in order of occurrence] that there are eight common areas that embezzlement occurs at religious institutions: forging cheques payable to oneself and/or personal vendors; pocketing cash receipts meant for deposit into institutional accounts; issuing extra paycheques and/or bonus cheques through payroll to oneself; submitting fraudulent expense reports for reimbursement; submitting fraudulent invoices from phony or legitimate vendors; abusing institutional credit cards for personal use; electronic transfer of institutional funds to pay for personal accounts and/or vendors; and pilfering institutional equipment and/or inventory.”

The association added that “embezzlement at churches has been referred to as a pandemic,” citing research by the Church Mutual Insurance company in 2009.

Individual followers can avoid being scammed by realizing that although most of the religious figures they deal with are indeed above reproach, some are not. Just because they wear a collar or serve as a rabbi or imam does not exempt them from the temptations they often preach against.

Faith is a powerful force and one that brings tremendous comfort to millions of people worldwide. Having that faith betrayed can be a cruel test, but it can be avoided by applying due diligence, caution and an understanding that human frailties apply to all of us, no matter what garb we wear.

About the Author

David Malamed


David Malamed, CPA, CA•IFA, CPA (Ill.), CCF, CFE, CFI, is a partner in forensic accounting at Grant Thornton LLP in Toronto.

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