Abuse and Embezzlement—Why Churches Continue to Struggle with Both
XPastor.org Founder David Fletcher reflects on the sobering trends his research revealed.
Abuse and Embezzlement—Why Churches Continue to Struggle with Both

The fact that sexual abuse, embezzlement, and incidents of gun violence are occurring within congregations is addressed in Predators in the Church , an upcoming book by David Fletcher, who has served in church ministry for more than 35 years and runs XPastor.org, a website devoted to helping executive pastors navigate their work. Fletcher also is hosting an online workshop this fall addressing these topics. (Note: Church Law & Tax is a media sponsor.)

Fletcher recently talked with me about what he’s learned while researching and writing his new book. He also will host a free webinar featuring me on September 4 to further discuss abuse prevention—register here.

Why write this book now? Churches have been wrestling with the issues of abuse, embezzlement, and gun violence incidents for a very long time.

Twenty years ago, there was not a need for such a book. Today, the need is palpable.

I’d like to say that things are getting better but they are not. For example, because of online transfer of funds, a church recently had $1.75 million stolen by an email scheme that enabled bank fraud.

There are frequent news reports about child sexual abuse. The impact on the victims is immense and the toll on churches is huge.

I wrote the book to address just three issues—child sexual abuse, embezzlement, and active shooters.

You wrote the book so that it can be read one of four ways: the classic way (cover to cover), or individually through narratives, case examples, and crisis tools contained in each chapter. Why did you create these multiple approaches?

We all learn in different ways. Some learn best through case studies, which explore the problems unfolding in real time in our composite church. Other people learn from news stories. The attempt is to help church leaders understand the problems from the inside out.

After hearing news regarding abuse scandals at churches, critics say that churches create policies and procedures that are designed to protect themselves, not victims. How can church leaders create and follow policies and procedures that demonstrate they care deeply about (1) preventing abuse, (2) responding sensitively to a victim should an allegation surface, and (3) working to protect the church?

The first step is to annually update policies and procedures in your church. Predators are smart, and last year’s prevention may not be enough today.

The second step is to get outside help when a predator is discovered. Most of us have so little experience with predators that we don’t know the best responses.

The church should be as transparent as possible about the problem, while simultaneously protecting the privacy of the victims. That can be a challenging dance in a church community!

You base your book exclusively on Dr. Stanton Samenow’s views regarding the criminal mind. Why did you find this doctor’s work especially convincing?

Samenow has decades of dealing with what he calls “the criminal mind.” I could never replicate his expert advice. Samenow brings the perspective of an outside expert that is needed to understand the thinking patterns of predators.

From dealing with so many cases of predators, he brings a realism. Here’s a quote from his 2002 book, Straight Talk About Criminals, that resonated with me:

It is a shock to discover that a person like Father Anthony has victimized the children he has been entrusted with teaching and protecting. Teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, clergymen, and others who care for children are often regarded as role models and certainly beyond suspicion of any sort of criminal conduct. It is the investment of absolute trust that makes it feasible for unscrupulous individuals to utilize their positions for their own purposes.

You also reference Dr. Samenow’s observations about pedophilia among clergy and his observation that celibacy (or other boundaries related to sexual activity) is not the root cause. If it isn’t, what is?

Samenow puts it this way in this Psychology Today article from 2017:

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape obviously are sex offenses. But they have little to do with sex itself. The people who are making headlines for their exploitation of women employed by their company likely have had no shortage of opportunities for consensual sex. Sexual predators have plenty of sexual experience but it is shallow. Sex is a control operation for them. They ordain the time and place of the encounter. Seeking a conquest is the overriding aspect.

This was a new thought to me. The main drive of the predator is the conquest, the desire to overpower and control the other person. I think that so often we look at the result, which is the sexual act. We need to also understand what drives that—the desire for control of another person.

You briefly touch upon sex crimes in the workplace. Again, the underlying root causes appear to be power, control, and vulnerability. How can churches address these types of power imbalances that predators wish to capitalize upon?

Good prevention is a great place to start. We need to openly identify that there is a problem.

Some simple things can help: never be alone with an adult of the opposite sex in a secluded place; never be alone with a minor of the same or opposite sex; have windows in the doors of offices; have an easy-to-use “whistleblower policy.”

Let’s stop thinking “it can’t happen here” and understand that sin is present in every location—the church, home, and community.

You emphasize that the perpetrator is usually known to the congregation because of being a clergy member, a staff member, or a volunteer. Do you think church leaders understand this reality? How must leaders respond?

With good screening and background checks in place, an abuser with a criminal record often is eliminated from a volunteer or staff position.

Problems arise when churches do not do the screening or read the reports that are given to them. A background check likely will reveal a prior criminal record.

But church leaders must go one step further and create sound policies and procedures, since background checks are not always perfect, nor will they catch a perpetrator who does not have a prior record.

Predators often have a warm and gregarious personality—doing work that others may not want to do. That’s why sound policies and practices must be followed.

Your book also examines the threat of embezzlement. When you speak to church leaders across the country, do you get the sense it’s a widespread concern?

I would like to report that it is a widespread concern and the cases are diminishing. However, most experts say that the amount of financial fraud continues to increase each year.

In 2016, LifeWay Research surveyed 1,000 pastors and found that about 1 in 10 had someone in their church embezzle funds.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, which insures about 62,000 churches nationwide, estimates that upwards of $63 billion is stolen each year from churches.

The embezzler may steal $100 a week while counting the offering; meanwhile, church leaders think, “We trust that person to count the offering.” Good money-counting policies always require placing two people together to do the work, which would eliminate such an opportunity for the predator who has slipped in undetected.

Churches generally take some steps to prevent financial fraud, but much more needs to be done.

Your book also addresses active-shooter scenarios, which are rare—although when they do happen, they draw extensive media coverage. The causes of violent incidents on church property usually are unrelated criminal acts that spill over—not a specific “predator” targeting a church. Why do you think leaders should still think about this threat in these terms?

We all need to know the limits of our expertise—and I’m not an expert on the causes of violent attacks on churches. What I do know is that since the year 2000, the FBI reports that the number of violent mass incidents has increased. The exact causal relationship may not be known, but the effects are known.

Churches, mosques, and synagogues have become targets for these predators. Various prevention strategies need to be adopted to help deter people who want to bring violence to our places of worship.

Along with the upcoming book, you’ve created an online workshop this fall to further educate church leaders about the threat of predators. How is this designed to equip leaders to proactively respond to these threats?

The live rollout will be 1 p.m. (Central) on October 24. It will feature live discussions and videos:

1 to 2 p.m.: The Case of the Active Shooter, Preventing Violence at Your Church
2 to 3 p.m.: The Case of the Child Predator, Safeguarding Children and Youth at Your Church
3 to 4 p.m.: The Case of the Church Embezzler, Preventing Fraud at Your Church

Matthew Branaugh is editor of content and business development for Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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