It’s not entirely news that a church leader stole money from the congregation. But it does raise a larger point about how this happened.
Charles Thomas Sebesta is the former board chair for the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, a religious group that continues to claim “faith healing” is real while standing on top of a pile of kids they’ve killed. He began working for the Los Angeles-based church in 2001, joined in 2005, and soon gained control over their financial assets, allowing him to siphon off the cash for himself.
In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted him on allegations of “wire fraud, bank fraud and identity theft.” He apparently used the money for, among other things, a new house and a “membership to an exclusive dining club at Disneyland” — Club 33 — because Goofy doesn’t come cheap.
The Justice Department also said that, in 2008, Sebesta sold a church property in Hollywood for approximately $12.8 million and gave himself a portion of the proceeds, using more than $2 million for a new home. More recently, prosecutors said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at a classy hotel with “a romantic partner,” which raises many other questions about how seriously he took his faith.
And now, despite facing up to 250 years in prison, Sebesta has been sentenced to just under 11… which means he’ll be able to get out during his lifetime. He’ll also have to pay back $11.4 million. Is that enough? I don’t know. It’s something. But look at the sentencing memo the prosecutors gave the judge in an attempt to maximize his time behind bars because it reveals something unintentional about the church itself:
Sebesta, who pleaded guilty last year to bank and wire fraud, admitted that he forged signatures on checks, created fictitious companies to submit phony invoices to the church, and intercepted bequests to the church from congregants who died. He also got the church “to fire, ostracize and disbelieve those who raised concerns” about his financial management, prosecutors told the judge in a sentencing memo.
Sebesta “destroyed a venerable church, its congregation, and the faith its congregants had in one another by employing sophisticated means to abuse his position of trust and cause the church not only substantial, but ruinous financial hardship,” and he treated the church “as his own personal piggy bank,” they wrote.
It’s not just that he was in a position to control the church’s cash flow. He used his religious authority to get rid of anyone who questioned him. It’s not unusual for someone you trust to have access to your money; it is, however, the church’s fault that they let Sebesta get so much power that questioning his work was seen as crossing a line and the other leaders just went along with it. A better, more transparent church would never have let that happen.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Ed for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)