Church Ladies Passing the Plate – to Themselves

Many ladies of the church devote countless hours of volunteer work to their congregations — arranging flowers, planning weddings, cooking food for gatherings and doing whatever it takes to service their congregations. But it seems that some of the ladies who work at the church are involved in another not so helpful activity. Stealing.

In my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” I tell the story of the church bookkeeper who stole money from one church and after being caught, moved to another state and stole millions from that church as well. Seems she is not alone.

Sharon Warunek won’t be going to her job at the Diocese of Scranton in Pennsylvania any longer, after working there for 27 years. As office manager of the church’s Society for the Propagation of Faith, she opened all the checks people donated to benefit the poor. Instead of passing the money along to those who need it most, she instead used at least $340,000 to cover her monthly Discover credit card bill.

Jerri S. Hunter of Virginia managed to embezzle half a million dollars from the Chester United Methodist Church over the course of six years and faces 14 counts of embezzlement. And she wasn’t even caught while she worked there. After she was fired for an unrelated charge, volunteers who were handled tasks she previously performed found discrepancies in the numbers.

Although the Hilltop Lutheran Church in South Bend, Indiana, only had 120 members, the secretary and treasurer Jane Loprest managed to steal $119,000 in the eight years, taking it upon herself to double and triple her pay. She was smart enough to manage the accounts so the church was never overdrawn. Using surveillance photos from the church’s bank, postal inspectors determined she was writing checks but never issuing them, instead cashing them for herself. She is serving a year and a day in prison. At least she said she was sorry.

Sadly, ladies stealing from the church could form their own church circle — and have quite a few members. One out of eight fraud schemes involves a religious organization or other non-profit. And most of the thefts are committed by women.

The gender gap is fairly easily explained when you consider that women handle most of the bookkeeping jobs in the United States. They are the ones with access to the money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010, 90 percent of the bookkeepers in the United States were women.

But why churches, religious organizations and non-profits? These are the more vulnerable organizations. They have “have very weak control systems. They’re not operating on big budgets that allow them to spend money on accountants,” according to Chris Marquet, CEO of Marquet International, a security firm based in Boston that tracked worker embezzlement schemes over the past five years.

The lesson here is not to be suspicious of the kindly lady at the reception desk or the office manager at your church office. It’s a lesson for anyone that owns or runs a business, particularly a smaller one that doesn’t have an accounting department. Always take a look at your books and institute controls on financial transactions. Don’t make anyone even attempt to violate the seventh commandment with your business’s money.

Look for me November 10 at 4:30 at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. I’ll be discussing my book,  ”How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.” The event is free and open to the public. Click here for more information.

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