There's a scandal -- A BIG ONE, BABY! -- brewing in America's churches. I know because I read it in The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., which featured in-depth coverage Sunday of the problem of church embezzlement. Here's the top of the 2,300-word mainbar:
Delaware worshippers often speak of going to church to become better people, but this spring Christians got a wholly unexpected lesson in lying and theft.
In May, at St. John's Methodist Church in Seaford, secretary Penny L. Kimbrough was arrested and charged with unlawfully writing checks to herself and getting a credit card by using the church's name.
That same month at Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Shannon G. Tuso, an administrative assistant, was arrested for taking money from the Greenville Episcopal church, after being convicted of embezzling from a bank three years earlier.
And at First Presbyterian Church of Newark, there is ongoing frustration over Carol H. Lind, a former administrator, treasurer and a respected choir member. She pleaded guilty to theft in a plea bargain in July 2009, but her restitution hearing has yet to be held in Superior Court.
No, I'm not going to comment on the three-examples-make-a-trend approach. (Been there, done that.)
After reading the Page 1 banner headline ("Pilferers prey on the faithful") and the subhead ("Too much trust makes church embezzlement common"), I actually had high hopes for this story. I wanted to like it. But then I got to the nut graf, the "why I should care" sentence that explains why this is news:
The issue of church embezzlement extends beyond Delaware and is so pervasive that one management expert fears it could be the next big scandal in America's churches.
Someone cue the dramatic music, please.
Later, there's this from Charles Zech, director of Villanova University's center for the study of church management:
Still, Zech worries that embezzlements could be the next big crisis for the American Catholic church. In his survey, almost 34 percent of financial officers said their biggest fear was the lack of financial controls at the parish level.
Another line that caught my attention:
A Villanova survey of Catholic dioceses in 2006 found that financial officers were almost as worried about parish fraud as suits over sexual abuse.
Now, this may shock you, GetReligion readers, but we journalists tend to love nothing more than a scandal. Apparently, though, the next best thing to a scandal is being the first to predict the next BIG ONE, BABY!
I am joking, of course.
And maybe I'm guilty of not taking this looming embezzlement scandal -- or crisis, if you want to go with the second reference -- seriously enough. Then again, Christian churches have survived 2,000-plus years, so maybe they will weather this storm, too. Or perhaps the temptation to steal money from the collection plate just started in the 21st century.
In all seriousness, the enterprise shown by the News Journal in tackling this topic impressed me. Not only does the story highlight recent embezzlement cases from churches, but it also includes excellent context on the fact that this problem is not limited to houses of worship:
In Delaware, bonds of trust have been broken because of embezzlements across all strata of society -- banks, government, supermarkets, volunteer fire companies, law firms, beauty salons and churches.
It's a crime of opportunity by people who present themselves as the best folks in the world, then take advantage of the trust they have earned, said U.S. Attorney David Weiss. With access to finances and little oversight, they begin to help themselves to money because of greed, addiction or financial pressures.
I loved the paper's sidebar on how to spot and stop an embezzler.
All in all, this was a nice piece of reporting on an important topic, albeit about 500 words too long (which is to say it could have benefited from tighter editing).
My main criticism, though, is that the facts could have stood on their own. This story didn't need predictions of THE NEXT BIG SCANDAL. Such statements by a single expert came across as overreaching and hurt the story more than they helped it.