Headlines culled from online news outlets in the last eight months tell a story of outrageous theft in houses of worship:
- “Man charged with stealing from Mayfair Church of Christ”
- “Alabama man accused of stealing from church collection plate”
- “Holy Hill collections counter charged with stealing $50,000”
The most recent case of church collection theft was reported Nov. 12 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A 75-year-old volunteer collection counter at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, at Holy Hill was arrested and charged with skimming cash — reportedly $50,000 or more — while counting money after Masses.
In a criminal complaint, the Journal Sentinel reported, the basilica staff noted that donations were down more than $100,000 in the past year. Someone set up an iPad camera to record a session of money counting and caught the volunteer stuffing bills into his pockets.
Authorities were notified and a second sting by law enforcement caught the same person pocketing money, to the tune of $1,400. The church pilferer faces five years in prison.
One common denominator in these cases is that the thieves were trusted members of their church communities. In other cases, even church pastors have been charged with collection basket theft. What are religious congregations to do if they can’t put faith in their own members?
According to church insurance companies, every house of worship needs to put security measures in place to prevent theft of collection offerings.
Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company of Fort Wayne, Ind., notes that stealing and embezzling from churches is a big business. “Researchers expect worldwide church financial fraud to reach the $80 billion mark by 2025,” the company says.
Brotherhood Mutual offers the following best practices for religious congregations to help prevent collection theft.
- Ask the congregation to place financial gifts in envelopes, with their personal information, before placing them in the offering plate.
- Always have at least two people collect the offering and two (different) people count it.
- Rotate money counting teams. No team should count money more than once a month.
- Stamp checks “For Deposit Only” when endorsing them to make it more difficult to copy or redirect checks anywhere but to the church’s account.
- Deposit offerings immediately.
- Reconcile offering counts and bank deposit slips often to keep teams accountable and to identify discrepancies soon after they occur.
Church Mutual Insurance Company of Merrill, Wis., reminds religious institutions to be especially careful during the upcoming holidays, when collections can be higher than usual.
“With the likely increase in offering amounts, the likelihood of theft also increases,” the insurance company says. “To guard against this, have separate offering bags for occasions with more than one service in a day. If it is practical, count and deposit your offerings in the bank right after the service. If that is not possible, never leave an offering bag in a room without counting it and locking it in a safe.”
The theft of church collections, especially by church volunteers, is one of the most shameful crimes imaginable. It’s important for parishes and other religious institutions to follow basic rules and guidelines to prevent theft and avoid unflattering headlines.