S.C. Investigators Want To Know If Charleston Church Mismanaged Funds After Shooting

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 1, 2019 7:03 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The tragedy of the Charleston church shooting appears to be compounding. Four years ago, after a white gunman killed nine black people and wounded others during Bible study, Emanuel AME Church received millions of dollars in donations. Now South Carolina state investigators want to know if the church mismanaged those funds. Jennifer Berry Hawes is a reporter at The Post and Courier. She's written a book about the shooting and its aftermath. And she says questions about the church's finances have been swirling for years.

JENNIFER BERRY HAWES: Very early on, the church's secretary was laid off, and she said she had raised concerns about the church bringing in so much money without a professional financial guide. Then there was a moment when a man who had lost his wife in the church shooting went to the fellowship hall where it had occurred and he said he saw three women sitting at a table opening mail, and they were removing cash and checks and putting those things into different piles without any sort of record-keeping that he saw. And those were the sorts of things that began to really raise questions.

CHANG: Yeah. And I understand that overall, the church received about $3.3 million in donations. The church kept about $1.8 million for itself and divided $1.5 million among the families of those killed. Did the church ever explain why it kept the majority of the donations?

BERRY HAWES: The church has maintained that when people sent money to the church, they intended for that money to go to the church. The family members and the survivors, of course, maintain that when people made donations, they intended it to go to the people who had lost loved ones and who had endured this trauma.

CHANG: OK.

BERRY HAWES: So that was sort of a central conflict. The church - now, that 3.3 million was the amount the church had raised roughly around a year after the shooting. Of course, since then it's received additional money from the enormous amount of visitors who come through the church, you know, and leave money in the collection plate and that sort of thing. So the family members and the survivors feel that the church kept money that donors intended to go to the people who are grieving. That's been a central conflict since the shooting.

CHANG: I mean, there's often so much attention immediately after shootings like these. That was certainly the case in Charleston. I'm curious what you make of, you know, four years out. How would you say the community is doing now?

BERRY HAWES: Well, there was a number of areas where the city has made good progress. For instance, the plantations in Charleston are doing a much better job telling a more full history of their properties. There are a number of racial conversations going on and so forth. But this sort of thing lingers, and it creates, you know, ongoing division between the church and the families and people within the church. And it just - it makes it difficult for wounds to heal because there's constantly friction arising. For instance, Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors, she is raising her granddaughter but did not receive money from the church and those donations to help pay for the child's care. Now, the child was in the room during the shooting. She saw what happened. She was walking around afterward and has needed considerable mental health care. So Felicia has felt very hurt that the church did not provide additional money to help cover those costs. And those sorts of things keep people from really healing.

CHANG: That's Jennifer Berry Hawes. Her book is called "Grace Will Lead Us Home."

Thanks very much for joining us today.

BERRY HAWES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.