March 5, 2015
For Immediate Release:
Time to stop the bleeding:
‘Ecclesiastical crime’ losses top missions giving,
will double to $100 billion next decade
Money embezzled by Christian workers and religious leaders around the world will exceed the total funding for world missions again in 2015, and then will double in the next 10 years to $100 billion.
That piece of information was revealed quietly in the January 2015 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, a widely respected scholarly journal published by the Overseas Missions Study Center in New Haven, Conn. Todd Johnson and his team of researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity annually compile these statistics for the bulletin.
The researchers estimate 2015 missions funding at $45 billion, with religious fraud projected to exceed that at $50 billion, a huge jump over last year’s $39 billion.
In fact, funds lost to religious fraud overtook missions giving totals 15 years ago.
The news has gone unreported in both national Christian and mainstream secular media. But the projection caused an earthquake in the thinking of Ole Anthony, whose Trinity Foundation has tracked religious fraud for decades from its base in Dallas.
As a direct result of the bulletin’s revelation, the foundation has decided to expand its investigations worldwide and is calling for coordinated action from churches and denominational leaders.
’Stunned’ by the statistics
Anthony said he was “stunned” when he saw the latest statistics. “It was like a bomb going off,” he said. “I knew from other sources that religious fraud exceeded all other types of fraud, but $50 billion is too much to stomach!”
According to Johnson, the steep increase in the estimates of ecclesiastical crime from 2014 to 2015 is linked to an increase in white collar crime due to greater use of technology (documented by FBI, Interpol, and others); an increase in giving to churches and parachurch organizations worldwide (with more independent groups controlling funds); and the rise of independent charismatics (many preaching the prosperity gospel) where there tend to be fewer controls and less accountability.
The researchers had previously estimated $60 billion in annual ecclesiastical crime by the year 2025 but they had to revise their figures upward to $100 billion after reviewing more current information.
“We are normally on a five-year cycle, but we now see that we have to be more vigilant in keeping these (statistics) up to date,” Johnson said in an email exchange with Anthony.
The ripple effect of the Prosperity Gospel
The category of “ecclesiastical crime” includes misappropriation of donation monies for any reason, Anthony said. But the statistics don’t break down the percentage of ecclesiastical crime committed by the most prominent televangelists.
“In the past, we’ve estimated that the business of televangelism rakes in $3-5 billion annually through fraudulent promises and techniques,” Anthony explained. But because religious TV is ubiquitous now around the world, the lavish lifestyle it models and the prosperity gospel it preaches create an atmosphere of spiritual entitlement that can overwhelm other moral considerations.
In effect, there is a ripple effect of moral decay that is directly preparing the ground for ecclesiastical crime.
“Although we don’t have any psychological survey results to prove this, anecdotal evidence tells us the big televangelists’ examples grant ‘mental permission’ for the small church treasurer, for instance, to steal from a congregation’s account,” he said.
“More generally, the example of opulent mega church buildings or the lavish lifestyle of even an honest prosperity preacher can do the same thing. They all send a subliminal signal that says God’s plan is all about the success of self.”
“That bolsters people’s natural greed and pushes it over the line toward action,” Anthony said. “With the right opportunity, that action is theft or skimming of funds, ‘because I deserve it.’”
Funds lost for the church’s mission
“For years, we’ve been criticized for concentrating on a fringe problem, putting energy into something that wasn’t important to the mission of the church; it was even seen by some as an attack on the church itself,” Anthony said.
“These current findings by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research show – to the contrary – that our concern has been directly relevant to the church’s overall mission.”
Funds that could be furthering the Kingdom of God, he said, are being siphoned off to support the self-indulgence of crooked religious leaders instead of meeting the needs of the poor around the world.
“It’s shameful that this has been ignored and allowed to continue,” Anthony said. “An urgent response is needed.”
Christians of all stripes — advocates for social justice, world hunger relief, evangelism, foreign missions efforts and theological orthodoxy — are all equally harmed, and must act jointly to stop the bleeding of funds that religious fraud represents.
A frustrating quarter-century of attempts to curb religious fraud
Trinity Foundation began monitoring religious media in 1974, and by 1988 had become pro-active in shining a public light on religious fraud. Early exposes of the more blatant televangelist excesses were seen by millions of viewers on virtually all the major news programs. While successful in alerting the general public to the problem, those investigations were interpreted by the televangelists’ followers as Satanic attacks, and often only confirmed the loyalty of many to their favorite preachers. Most of the targets of these investigations continued to make money despite the bad publicity.
More recently, the foundation worked quietly with the Senate Finance Committee hoping it would craft some kind of regulatory legislation against religious financial abuses. When the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, the Senate Finance Committee put their investigation on a back burner. It finally fizzled out in 2011 when Sen. Charles Grassley, the chairman, asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to make recommendations that didn’t include any new legislation.
The ECFA is the organization tasked for self-policing religious financial accountability. But it is legally toothless, and some of its members have close ties to the very televangelists that prompted the Senate investigations in the first place, Anthony said.
The result? Nothing has changed.
During these decades, many church members and church leaders expressed encouragement and support for Trinity Foundation’s efforts exposing religious fraud. But little actual funding was offered to address the problem, and no general outcry was forthcoming from the religious community.
Anthony said he has served on five different task forces investigating religious fraud, and has worked with various U. S. Attorneys and state attorneys general, with little to show for it.
“The problem is that most legal authorities are always in some way influenced by politics,” he said, which makes it difficult to follow through in the long term. Appointments end when a different party comes to power, and political considerations often hamstring sympathetic office holders.
Developing case law
One of the few remaining ways to curb religious fraud effectively is to develop case law, mainly by helping law enforcement prosecute individual cases. Each case incrementally defines more clearly the illegality of fraudulent practices, and makes future enforcement easier.
“We are also working with a group of attorneys who are searching for the best way to approach either a class action suit or RICO case that could do the same thing more quickly,” Anthony said.
The foundation has continued to work on a shoestring budget with news organizations, providing data and helping with investigations. But these latest research findings called for a departure from the norm, Anthony said.
“The research shows a direct link between religious fraud and a devastating effect on the church’s basic mission. It’s time Christians, and believers of all faiths, say publicly with one voice that ending religious fraud is a priority.”
Time to stop the bleeding
For its part, Trinity Foundation is expanding its activities worldwide.
“We have begun to enlist volunteers around the world to replicate our investigative tactics,” Anthony explained. Training materials will help volunteers determine what their particular country’s law enforcement requires to gain a conviction and how to best obtain that information.
It’s simply formalizing what has been happening informally for years, Anthony said.
“People from every continent except Antarctica have offered to help us over the years with our investigations,” he said. “Volunteers and informants here and abroad have provided a major source of information to the foundation for decades. Now we intend to ‘deputize’ some of these same individuals to expand the project in their own countries.”
Anthony also challenged people of faith everywhere to respond on their own:
—American churches and individual believers can press their representatives for real legislation that would block avenues in which crooked organizations take advantage of separation of church & state policies to get around IRS and other existing regulations (such as a direct-mail operation calling itself a “church”).
—Internally, churches can begin to educate their members on the importance of stewardship and financial accountability, to keep track of how money is actually spent by parachurch organizations they support, and help prevent church members (and their vulnerable relatives and friends) from being sucked in by fraudulent schemes.
— Take care of the victims of these unscrupulous predators. Give them somewhere to turn when either they are their family members have been victimized — a hotline, a counseling program, etc.
— An educational public service announcement campaign is needed on how religious fraud works. It could be patterned on the successful anti-smoking campaigns, in which the harmful effects of a “habit” become known, and then it slowly becomes socially unacceptable. If people were confronted by the effects of sending their checks off to fund bogus ministers, it might eventually sink in.
—Best practices in financial accountability should be in place in churches no matter what size, to reduce the opportunities for theft and fraud and foster a culture of accountability.
—Prayer is always effective. We can all pray that the crooked preachers around the world would repent, turn from their greed and redirect their ministries toward spreading the gospel and helping the needy.
Trinity Foundation regularly provides assistance to print and electronic journalists investigating suspected fraud or other abuses of the public trust by religious broadcasters and televangelists. It began monitoring the religious television industry in the 1980s and helped major news organizations investigate the questionable finances and lavish lifestyles of televangelists like Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Jan and Paul Crouch from the 1990s to the present. Beginning in 2005, the foundation was instrumental in providing data and guidance to the US Senate Finance Committee’s investigation of televangelists’ financial dealings. Trinity Foundation is the only public religious foundation focused on monitoring and investigating religious fraud.
The International Bulletin of Missionary Research is regarded as the authoritative source for analysis of world missions efforts. It has published the Atlas of Global Christianity, the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions and the Dictionary of African Christian Biography and hosts conferences for religious scholars worldwide. The study center was founded in 1922 by the daughters of missions leader William Howard Doane, composer of the beloved hymn, “To God be the Glory.”
[Chicago] Johnson, Todd M., Gina A. Zurlo, Albert W. Hickman, and Peter F. Crossing. “Christianity 2015: Religious Diversity and Personal Contact.”International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39, no. 1 (2015): 28–29. “http://www.internationalbulletin.org/system/files/2015-01-028-johnson.html” http://www.internationalbulletin.org/system/files/2015-01-028-johnson.html.
Contact: Pete Evans