Hard to talk about it…
Amer Saka was the priest at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in London, Ontario. His life had been hard: his brother had been murdered, and some years later his mother was shot and died in his arms. A casual trip to the casino with friends turned into a serious gambling addiction. He said that it took away the horror of his memories.
Saka was in charge of a program that helped refugees in his church. Others donated money, but the money never got to the families. Instead, he took the money and gambled with it. The money often did not return: on one trip to the casino he lost $25,000. He kept gambling, believing he would win all of the money back.
The thefts were discovered when the church’s sponsorship office noticed some irregularities. The Federal Transactions Report Analysis Centre of Canada was also interested. The Crown estimated that he took over $936,000 CDN ($716,000 USD) over three or four years. link1 link2 link3
The scheme used here is a variation on classic “skimming.” Usually, the money is stolen anonymously. A few twenties lifted from the collection. But here, Saka accepted sponsorship money from families directly. The money was supposed to be used to relocate family members from Iraq into Canada. But the money rarely made it to the refugees. And some of the refugees never made it to Canada.
But the root of this problem was Saka’s gambling addiction. And undiagnosed PTSD lay behind that. In fraud investigations we often refer to the “Fraud Triangle.” These are the three elements one has to have for fraud to occur. One of these is “unshareable financial pressure”: his was a need to finance his gambling. Gambling is not a commonly-accepted pastime for a man of the cloth. So he couldn’t share his problem with anyone.
The second side of the Fraud Triangle is “Opportunity.” Here, he took in the money and was the bookkeeper for the program. The volunteer who was overseeing Saka’s work didn’t notice the discrepancies. But they came to light when the church replaced the volunteer with a salaried person.
The third side of the Fraud Triangle is “Rationalization.” Saka himself said he planned to repay the money with his winnings. He told himself this so he would not think of himself as a thief.
How To Prevent This At Your Church
When you have bookkeeping to be done, the person doing it can keep the books all day long. Little risk.
When cash is being handled, have two unrelated people working with it – and watching each other. They can play with the money all day long and all is well. Heck, they can toss it in the air just to watch if flutter down. So long as each is watching the other – no problem! Even better? When you know how much they start with and how much is present when they’re finished.
But DO NOT let the same person keep the books and touch the money. This is a critical thing to remember. This accounted for sixty percent of the church fraud cases reported in the press in the last half of 2019 link.
- Your church’s chief money person answers a bunch of questions online
- He or she fields questions out to others as needed
- Others review the answers and make any necessary corrections.
- We produce a book showing what is being done well and what to improve.
- The book also includes a ‘best practices’ section and a plan to do it all with the fewest number of people
- We print copies of the book for the pastor and each board member
- We then meet by video conference to discuss implementation