How to Address Suspicions of Embezzlement

Four strategies to guide uncomfortable conversations as you seek to uncover the truth.

Sometimes a person who has embezzled church funds will voluntarily confess—usually out of a fear that he or she is about to be “caught.” But in many cases the embezzler does not confess—at least initially. Discrepancies or irregularities may occur which cause church leaders to suspect this person. Consider the following examples.

  • The same person has counted church offerings for many years. The pastor inadvertently notices that offerings are always higher when this person is absent (due to illness, business, or vacation).
  • Church officials noticed that a church bookkeeper was living a higher standard of living than was realistic given her income. Among other things, she purchased an expensive home and a luxury car.
  • Church offerings have remained constant, or increased slightly, despite the fact that attendance has increased.
  • A church treasurer notices that a church official with sole signature authority on the church checking account has purchased a number of expensive items from unknown companies without any documentation to prove what was purchased and why.

Church leaders often are unsure how to address suspected cases of embezzlement. The suspected embezzler is almost always a trusted member or employee, and church leaders are reluctant to accuse such a person without irrefutable evidence that he or she is guilty.

Seldom does such evidence exist. The pastor may confront the person about the suspicion, but in many cases the individual will deny any wrongdoing—even if guilty. This compounds the frustration of church officials, who do not know how to proceed.

Here is a list of steps that church leaders can take to resolve such difficult cases:

Confront the suspected embezzler

The pastor and at least one other church leader should confront the suspected embezzler. Inform the person that the church has evidence indicating that he or she has embezzled church funds. Seek a confession. Inform the person that if no one confesses, the church will be forced to call in a CPA firm to confirm that embezzlement has occurred, and to identify the probable embezzler.

Tip. Embezzlement is a criminal offense. Depending on the amount of funds or property taken, it may be a felony that can result in a sentence in the state penitentiary. This obviously would have a devastating impact on the embezzler, and his or her family.

If the evidence clearly indicates that a particular member or employee has embezzled church funds, but this person denies any wrongdoing, inform him or her that the church may be forced to turn the matter over to the police for investigation and prosecution.

Tip. Embezzlers never report their illegally obtained “income” on their tax returns. Nor do they suspect that failure to do so may subject them to criminal tax evasion charges! In fact, in some cases it is actually more likely that the IRS will prosecute the embezzler for tax evasion than the local prosecutor will prosecute for the crime of embezzlement.

If the evidence clearly indicates that a particular member or employee has embezzled church funds, but this person denies any wrongdoing, inform him or her that the church may be forced to turn the matter over to the IRS for investigation and possible prosecution.

Conduct an audit

Have a local CPA conduct an audit to establish that embezzlement has occurred, and provide an estimate of how much was embezzled.

If the suspected embezzler denies any wrongdoing (or if embezzlement is suspected but it is not clear who is guilty), church leaders should consider hiring a local CPA firm to look for evidence of embezzlement. There is a good possibility that the embezzlement will be detected, and that the perpetrator will be identified.

Tip. CPAs can also help the church establish a strong system of internal control to reduce the risk of embezzlement in the future.

Many church leaders have found that turning the investigation over to a CPA firm is much more acceptable than conducting the investigation internally. The CPA firm is completely objective, and ordinarily will not know the suspected embezzler. Further, few church members will object to the church hiring a CPA firm to detect wrongdoing and help establish a sound system of internal control.

Contact the police or local prosecutor

If the suspected embezzler does not confess, or if embezzlement is suspected but it is not clear who is guilty, church leaders must consider turning the matter over to the police or local prosecutor. This is a very difficult decision, since it may result in the prosecution and incarceration of a member of the congregation.

Respond to a confession

In some cases the embezzler eventually confesses. Often, this is to prevent the church from turning the case over to the IRS or the police, or to a CPA firm. Embezzlers believe they will receive “better treatment” from their own church than from the government. In many cases they are correct.

It often is astonishing how quickly church members will rally in support of the embezzler once he or she confesses—no matter how much money was stolen from the church. This is especially true when the embezzler used the embezzled funds for a “noble” purpose, such as medical bills for a sick child. Many church members demand that the embezzler be forgiven.

They are shocked and repulsed by the suggestion that the embezzler—their friend and fellow church member—be turned over to the IRS or the police! But is it this simple? Should church leaders join in the outpouring of sympathy? Should the matter be dropped once the embezzler confesses?

These are questions that each church will have to answer for itself, depending on the circumstances of each case. Before forgiving the embezzler and dropping the matter, church leaders should consider the following points:

A serious crime has been committed, and the embezzler has breached a sacred trust. The church should insist, at a minimum, that the embezzler must:

  • disclose how much money was embezzled
  • make full restitution by paying back all embezzled funds within a specified period of time, and
  • immediately and permanently be removed from any position within the church involving access to church funds

Tip. Closely scrutinize and question the amount of funds the embezzler claims to have taken. Remember, you are relying on the word of an admitted thief. Is it a realistic amount? Is it consistent with the irregularities or discrepancies that caused church leaders to suspect embezzlement in the first place? If in doubt, consider hiring a local CPA to review the amount the embezzler claims to have stolen.

In many cases the embezzler will insist that he or she is not able to pay back the embezzled funds.

They have been spent. This presents church leaders with a difficult decision, since the embezzler has received unreported taxable income from the church. The embezzler should be informed that the embezzled funds must either be returned within a specified time, or a promissory note must be signed promising to pay back the embezzled funds within a specified period of time.

The embezzler should be informed that failure to agree to either alternative will force the church to issue him or her a 1099 (or a corrected W-2 if the embezzler is an employee) reporting the embezzled funds as taxable income. Failure to do so will subject the church to a potential penalty (up to $10,000) for aiding and abetting in the substantial understatement of taxable income under section 6701 of the tax code.

Tip. An embezzler’s biggest problem ordinarily will not be with the church or even with the local prosecutor. It will be with the IRS for failure to report taxable income. There are only two ways to avoid trouble with the IRS: (1) the embezzler pays back the embezzled funds, or (2) the church reports the embezzled funds as taxable income on a 1099 or corrected W-2.

Church leaders must also remember that they owe a fiduciary obligation to the church and that they are stewards of the church’s resources.

Viewing the offender with mercy does not necessarily mean that the debt must be forgiven and a criminal act ignored. Churches are public charities that exist to serve religious purposes, and they are funded entirely out of charitable contributions from persons who justifiably assume that their contributions will be used to further the church’s mission. These purposes may not be served when a church forgives and ignores cases of embezzlement.

Tip. The federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits most employers from requiring or even suggesting that an employee submit to a polygraph exam. Employers also are prevented from dismissing or disciplining an employee for refusing to take a polygraph exam.

There is an exception that may apply in some cases—an employer may require that an employee take a polygraph exam if the employee is suspected of a specific act of theft or other economic loss and the employer has reported the matter to the police. However, the employer must follow very strict requirements to avoid liability.

A church should never suggest or require that an employee submit to a polygraph exam, even in cases of suspected embezzlement, without first contacting a local attorney for legal advice.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold 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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