South Carolina authorities confirmed this week they’re looking into the finances of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, also known as Mother Emanuel, site of a 2015 mass shooting. After a white supremacist killed nine black Bible study participants, Mother Emanuel received an outpouring of monetary gifts. But suspicions have lingered about how those donations were handled and distributed.
Now the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has opened an investigation into the church’s books, including gifts received following the massacre.
Donations Flooded Mother Emanuel After Tragedy
The tragedy, which included the murder of Emanuel’s pastor and most of its ministry staff, moved people worldwide to open their wallets. Donors sent cash and checks, sometimes in envelopes marked with the names of specific victims’ families. Others tacked cash to makeshift memorials outside the church. Financial donations totaled about $3.3 million.
Less than two months after the shooting, Emanuel didn’t renew the contract of church secretary Althea Latham. She claims that’s because she raised concerns about how monetary gifts were being processed. Latham reported seeing church members opening envelopes addressed to families of victims and survivors. Those families, in turn, say the church passed along mail that was addressed to them but had been opened. Some envelopes were labeled “empty.”
Arthur Hurd, whose wife was killed, sued Emanuel for an accounting of donations. He also claimed he’d seen church members open envelopes and remove money without recording it.
Liz Alston, the congregation’s historian and a former trustee, welcomes the SLED investigation. “I do hope some accountability will come out of this,” she says. “Financial accountability is a big problem at Emanuel.” Visitors drawn by the tragedy continue filling the church’s pews and offering plates, she adds.
Emanuel’s current pastor, the Rev. Eric Manning, said the state hadn’t yet informed him about its investigation. The Rev. Norvel Goff, Emanuel’s interim pastor for seven months after the massacre, hasn’t yet commented. Previously, congregational leaders have denied any wrongdoing, and Goff even called a local newspaper “satanic” when it reported on concerns.
Payout Causes More Hurt Feelings
This investigation is the latest in a lengthy controversy about Emanuel’s finances. Victims’ families and survivors also were upset by how the church distributed donations. Of the $3.3 million received, the church gave $1.5 million to families and kept $1.8 million for its building fund, an endowment, a memorial, and scholarships.
Goff, now a presiding elder in Emanuel’s district, said at the time, “The church in its benevolence has made what we feel is a tremendous gift out of honor to the victims’ families and to the survivors, too.”
Andy Savage, a lawyer for some of the families, said they were grateful but “perplexed regarding the formula” used for making payouts. This week he confirmed that he and his clients are cooperating with the SLED investigation.
Donations made in the wake of mass shootings regularly cause concerns about fairness and transparency. As The Atlantic wrote two months before the tragedy at Emanuel, “Accepting the money turns out to be the easy part. Deciding how to give it away equitably is where the trouble starts.”