15 Religious Swindles That Shame the Holy Name

What crime combines billions in annual earnings, sneaky accounting, a lack of media coverage, and the good Lord himself? Religious fraud. Conning the faithful, it turns out, is a lucrative art.

Christian leaders alone stole more than $27 billion in 2009, according to one estimate. Such leaders steal more money than is spent annually on global religious missions. Narrowing it down even more, Utah, arguably the fraud capital of the United States, has a fraud industry “double the size” of its ski industry.

If you’re a slippery type, these figures represent a heck of an opportunity. Indeed, the priests, ministers and thetans below have grabbed this chrysobull by the horns, perpetrating religious swindles that put the finer tenets of their theology to shame.

15. Xenu’s Swiss Securities

Image: mrmanc/Flickr

Like a new breed of carnivorous alien, Scientology, after being conceived in the test tube of one man’s mind, grew from a sci-fi story into a cult that annually bilks hundreds of people. With illustrious types like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Sonny Bono, and Kirstie Alley on their roster, the Scientology cult has even more power. If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that there are loads of people who will happily follow what a famous person says just because they said it.

Through another so-called “affinity” con, which brings in people linked by a common belief to act for a particular cause, more than five hundred people were ripped off during the 1980s by Reed Slatkin. If the name sounds familiar, it ought to. He is a co-founder of the Atlanta-based ISP Earthlink.

Some of his victims were Hollywood types and even fellow Scientology adherents (he himself is an ordained minister of the group). And what was it for? Non-existent Swiss securities. The great promised returns never materialized. But, even in Switzerland, the saying is still the same: “Ein Narr und sein Geld sind bald geschieden” (A fool and his money are soon parted.)

14. Mormons Bilked by the Golden Rule

Image: BullionVault/Flickr

Gold isn’t just for Bond villains and medicated powder. It’s also immensely useful for ripping off loads of well-intentioned people. Such deception works especially well if the gold doesn’t actually exist.

Henry Jones (no relation to Indiana or Jim for that matter), Robert Jennings and Arthur Simburg decided to take 735 believers to the cleaners by hatching a plan to fund their crummy little energy consortium. It consisted of a low-yield coal mine in Kentucky and 20,000 tons of gold bullion from the Middle East, to be delivered by some unnamed Arabian royal.

Seriously? 20,000 tons? That’s more gold than the US has in its reserves. But, the ace up these men’s sleeves was affinity. Most of their investors were devout Mormons who conversed regularly with one another and even prayed together on the phone. It was a tight-knit bunch who grew close in cost and cause.

If a trusted group of believers sees God’s hand at work in a thing, they see no reason to investigate the truth of it. The Tri Energy guys knew this. The Golden Rule was their main tenet: He who has the gold makes the rules.

13. Too Big to Fail?

A Christian nonprofit organization, foreign bank accounts, bribery, theft, a faux gold mine, and global fraud. It sounds a bit like a bad movie spiel, doesn’t it?

But as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. One Edward Purvis of Chandler, Arizona stands guilty of 43 counts of criminal fraud and theft, among a host of other charges.

Purvis attempted to bilk millions of dollars from his investors, whom he tried to entice into funding overseas religious work. Supposedly there was a gold mine in the South Pacific, but in actuality, the ore the New Zealand mine spat out was worse than useless and Purvis was proven to have links to several Chinese, Swiss, Australian, and Caribbean companies.

With so much going on, Purvis, who was working with a known felon and already in violation of his probation (when he was arrested for this latest scam of his), probably thought since his eggs weren’t all in one basket, he’d be safe. Not so much. This unwieldy juggernaut of convoluted criminal mischief was just big enough to take a dive right on Purvis’ head when the feds finally caught up to him. If he’s convicted, the judge will definitely have the last shot at the behemoth of criminal idiocy by sentencing him to 100 years in prison. Now there’s some divine justice.

12. The Nasty Guru

It takes all kinds. If it isn’t a child molesting priest, a swindling preacher or a tax evading church administrator, it’s something else. Well, here’s the something else.

Santosh Madhavan, setting up shop in Bahrain as a self-styled guru and calling himself Swami Amritachaitanya, conned some twenty-odd Indians into giving him investment money for a charity organization and a resort. Is this sounding familiar? Just wait, it gets better.

Three underage girls went to the authorities claiming that he sexually assaulted them. Madhaven was charged with fraud, rape, possession of narcotics, among a laundry list of other misdeeds. Despite his obvious guilt, lots of Hindus believe that he should be left alone simply because Swamis are considered by the faithful to be above the law. Even those who dedicate themselves to bottom-feeding rather than Brahman.

11. Stamping out Religious Corruption

Okay, it’s make-believe time. Pretend you are a church employee with a desire to filch from the coffers because ‘Nobody will notice.’ Pretend also that you’re absolutely gonzo about collecting expensive stuff. Like musical instruments or cars. Or…postage stamps.

Derek Klein of Norfolk did exactly this, but even a church treasurer can’t make that much, right? That’s precisely why he made off with $140,000 (£88,502) so he could indulge in his two obsessions, philatelism and gambling.

Naturally, he got caught, and did spend some time in the pokey, but rather than go back, he told the judge that he could make back the money and then some by selling the stamp collection (which is large enough to fill a small family garage) on eBay. If he tried to make off with any of the money (which wouldn’t have surprised us) or tried any other funny business, the no-nonsense Judge Jacobs was going to toss him right back in the clink.

But come on. Stamps?

10. A Case of Mistaken Immunity

Image: Steve Dufour

In the early 1980s, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was under investigation for tax evasion and conspiracy to commit fraud and evasion. As a religious leader, this doesn’t seem all that odd, right?

Well, in this admittedly rare case, Moon is the good guy got off the hook. Unlike a lot of church officials in positions of high authority, Moon wasn’t officially found guilty of embezzling from his church or conning his faithful into giving him money that he spent on himself. (Commenter Denny [see comments below] brings up the point that Moon was indeed conning preachers by making them think the IRS was going to audit them, when in fact this wasn’t the case.)

Moon had $112,000 in earned interest in his bank account as well as $50,000 in stocks. After setting aside some of the money for his family’s needs, he held onto the rest for his church, but in his name. The IRS claimed that he was attempting to mislead them by not admitting the held amount in his filing(s).

A Senate subcommittee issued a sort of indirect apology, insinuating that what was done to him was wrong and that snap judgments were made because Moon wasn’t from the United States originally. Moon, undaunted, was able to run other shadowy operations on the side, including an up to $1 billion scam involving selling relics with supernatural powers to Japanese widows. This so-called martyr has also poured significant funds into a South Korean arms manufacturer and pouring money into the US conservative political movement, including a defense of Richard Nixon after Watergate and founding the conservative newspaper the Washington Times.

9. Rich in Pocket, Bereft of Spirit

If you want to enjoy the lively, cosmopolitan side of Brazil, you could do worse than Sao Paolo. But if you are even remotely religious, you would do well to stay away from a house of God run by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Their god is greed and the faith is thriving. Or at least it was until church founder Bishop Edir Macedo and nine flunkies were accused of embezzling billions of dollars from their flock (who are mostly on the lower end of the income scale, honestly).

Over the course of five years (though the scheme itself existed for about a decade), Macedo and his pals swiped 2 billion from the church and its congregants. Like good con-opolists, they used that money to buy up businesses, real estate and other resources. At his peak, Macedo’s ill-gotten gains netted him a large television network, three newspapers, several radio stations, a tourism agency, and an air taxi service. Now that’s diversification.

The church was investigated by the taxman in the ’90s, but the religious behemoth just shrugged it off, staying fat and happy, like a cat that got into the cream. Well, the cream has curdled and it looks like the cat has been skinned. Even so, it’s probably only a matter of time before some other greedy sot gets caught with his hand in the church’s cookie jar.

8. ORU: What Happens Here Doesn’t Stay Here

Image: mulmatsherm/Flickr

Greed and corruption are notoriously lewd bedfellows. Secular or religious, people with a yen for turning repurposed money to their own ends are as common as ladies of the evening on the Vegas strip. They’re also about as willing to do what it takes to make a buck. The larger the group, the messier it gets, and when it’s an entire board of governing officials who are in cahoots, you’ve got nothing less than a veritable orgy of avarice.

At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, that’s pretty much what happened. The (now former) board of regents, including the school president, and the directors of the school’s various ministries basically siphoned off more than $1 billion for their own use.

Of course the one guy who knew about it (an accountant, natch) got canned because he was ‘asking too many questions’. It makes sense that they would fire the guy for doing his job a little too well. They were afraid he would blab. It’s just as well these guys weren’t the mob or they would have busted his kneecaps and shot his wife, at the very least.

Still, things are looking up. Since 2008, the school has done some much-needed pruning and ORU’s fortunes are gradually turning around.

7. Sunday Adelaja’s Bloody Sunday

Sunday Adelaja, a well-known and influential Ukraine pastor of Nigerian origin has been a popular force in his sphere of influence (a group called God’s Embassy) for fifteen years.

The complex web of intrigue woven about him concerns a group called King’s Capital, an investment company to which he compelled his faithful to ally themselves, with a nominal donation of course. He denies any wrongdoing, but would the man allow officials from King’s to address his flock from the pulpit if the man didn’t have a stake in it? Not in a million years.

It was speculated that a bank in Lagos, Nigeria, GS Microfinance, of which Sunday is a part, played host to some of King’s Capital’s money (which his congregants gave him). The bank president denies that Sunday had anything to do with the bank’s financing, but that he ‘lent his name to it to give the bank credibility’ in his home town, so impoverished Nigerians would be inclined to do business with microfinance. Right.

Even Sunday’s fellow evangelicals distanced themselves from the fiasco, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Honestly, if you’re looking for integrity in this man’s house of worship, you won’t find it. God, much like Elvis, has left the building.

6. Harmonious Discord

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Come one, come all! See the amazing Li Yi as he successfully combines Chinese mysticism, chicanery, Communism, materialistic greed, and your general lack of knowledge to astound and amaze you!

After Li Yi (also known as Li Jun) became a Taoist, he probably sat and thought to himself, “Hmm. How can I make money off my fellow man in a cunning and crafty way that they will never suspect?”

A year later, he set up a temple (with government approval) and charged 9,000 yuan (€1,034 or $1,421) for week-long ‘sessions’ in which he would teach people his mystical ways. Using what amounted to little more than elaborate parlor tricks, he claimed to be able to heal the sick and perform superhuman feats like breathing underwater through his feet.

Now, there’s a lot that even the casual layperson might not know about the mystical religions of the East, but come on. If this guy wants to be a real magician, maybe he should take a cue from someone who does it for a living. Better yet, he should talk to one of the other religious swindlers in the world who haven’t been caught yet, and ask them where they hid all the money they filched. That would be a trick to see.

5 Leo the Straight Shooter

You don’t have to be a religious historian to figure out that the Vatican has a long, sordid and messy past. Over the centuries, countless pontiffs have used their elevated status as not only the head of a city-state, but as the world leader in one of the largest single religions ever to advance themselves most shamelessly.

Take Leo X, who was Pope from 1513 to 1521 (when he died). He instituted a radical and heinous ploy to fill the church coffers. Unlike modern evangelists who sucker their gullible flock into buying into some venture that slowly but gradually eats up their finances, Leo insisted that his people literally pay money for the sins they committed. One imagines a list of sins and their price tag on the wall of the Sistine chapel. It probably read something like this:

• 100 florins for murder
• 90 florins for incest
• 85 florins for covetousness
• 75 florins for theft
• 50 florins for lying
• 35 florins for bribery

Incidentally, one of the things that attracted so many people to the Reformation was Martin Luther’s extreme dislike for the Pope’s adherence to such a greedy and overt means of lining the church’s (and by extension his) pockets. No wonder this Pope hated Martin Luther and his cause so much. It meant less money for him!

4. The Rubes’ Rupees

Every year, many faithful Muslims make the required pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip is long and expensive. Some people take years to scrape together the necessary funds, thus only going there once in their lifetime. This only compounds both the gall of the guilty parties and the gullibility of the people who got taken in, believing in the goodness of man.

One particular venture claimed to provide housing for the many Pakistani Hajjis (holy pilgrims) who visit Saudi Arabia every year. The problem was that lots of the properties were in a bad way. Either they weren’t even finished being built or they were dilapidated.

Who funded this elephant in the room? The very pilgrims that the properties were meant to house. It takes a certain type of messed up person to be able to clean hapless pilgrims out like that.

3. Jim Bakker’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous

For all their pomp and bluster, trumpeting their righteous work to the millions of people who watch them every day, televangelists can be pretty corrupt. Case in point: Jim Bakker. Bakker (pronounced Baker), once front man for the failed PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, and his then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, not only swiped funds from their own show, but offered 9,700 hapless fans what was supposed to be a lifetime pass to the Bakker’s own religious theme park, Heritage USA. In truth, it was lodgings in a giant bunkhouse with 48 beds.

But those weren’t the only nails in the Bakker’s coffin. Tammy Faye Bakker was commercialism’s own Juliette (think Sade, not Shakespeare), and spent who knows how much of her ill-gotten gains on crap she didn’t need.

And Jim? The guy had a mistress who he paid several thousand dollars (of PTL’s money) to keep quiet.

But it gets so much better! A former Bakker yes man, John Wesley Fletcher, alleged in an interview that he and Bakker had sexual relations and that Bakker requested he find other male partners for him. Jim had tried to keep this quiet too, but the skeletons came out of the closet, so to speak.

Additionally, the Bakkers’ aides, the brothers Taggart (David and James) and PTL’s second-in-charge, Richard Dortch, were all in for a piece of the pie. All this made for one hell of a spectacle.

2. Getting Into Heaven, One Dollar At a Time

Faith is a powerful motivator. When you couple that with a healthy dose of gullibility and mix in a significantly charismatic fellow, you’ve got one big mess. Jim Jones’ Jamestown started in such a way. We all know how that ended.

While there was no spiked punch in Gerald Payne’s Ponzi scheme, there was a lot of bilking, dishonesty and greed, all in the name of God. In the 1990s, Payne and his cohorts devised a massive pyramid scheme that would ultimately divest roughly 18,000 people of between $450-$500 million. Undelivered returns of both faith-based and monetary investments finally brought the scam to a sticky halt. Despite the legal victory, many of the faithful investors never saw their money again.

1. The Vatican Bank’s Dirty Laundering

Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” Ettore Gotti Tedeschi clearly missed this lesson in Sunday school. Tedeschi, CEO of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, is under investigation for embezzling €23 million ($31.7 milllion) through the venerable institution.

Because the Vatican can claim statehood under international law, any residents of Vatican City inclined to crime can hide from the European fuzz for as long as they want. Or until they become inconvenient for the Holy See and the Pope turns them out.

Where are all those millions of euros that the Catholic church amasses supposed to go? To religious works and charity, of course. Sounds great on paper. Maybe the two banks Tedeschi diverted the money to were really fronts for orphanages and soup kitchens.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.