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Concerns Mount At Emanuel AME As SC Investigates Church Finances

Emanuel AME in Charleston, S.C.

After the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, donations from across the globe poured in to the church. That show of care and support added up to several million dollars. How church leaders handled and distributed that money is now the subject of lawsuits by families of victims.

And, as the Post and Courier of Charleston confirmed last week, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has opened an investigation into the church's finances.

The Post and Courier’s Jennifer Berry Hawes, who has reported extensively on Mother Emanuel and the family members of the shooting victims, joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf with more.

JENNIFER BERRY HAWES: People sent money in from all around the world to show condolences after the shooting. They sent them primarily to the church because they didn't know in those days who the survivors were, they didn't know where the family members lived and millions and millions of dollars poured in, really within the first year to the church alone — about $3.3 million.

LISA WORF: And how did the church decide to distribute those donations?

HAWES: The church about a year afterward set up a distribution of that $3.3 million that basically capped a little more than half of that, at $1.8 million, for the church and then divided up the remaining one $1.5 million or so 10 different ways between the nine families and one of the survivors, Polly Sheppard, who did not lose a loved one in the shooting. And that distribution method raised some concerns — but also the transparency and the record keeping that was involved raised a lot of concerns.

WORF: And were those distributions equal among the victims' families then?

HAWES: And as best as we can tell it was. The place where it became thorny was that Polly Sheppard, as I mentioned, received essentially a tenth. But Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter, who was 11 years old at the time, who also were survivors, did not receive any of the money for themselves. And that little girl, who's now a teenager, has required substantial inpatient and outpatient care, which obviously costs money.

WORF: What were those concerns around transparency and who raised them?

HAWES: There were a number of avenues where that became an issue. One was that the church's secretary was let go about two months after the shooting. And she said that that was because she had raised concerns that the church needed to bring in an outside financial expert to monitor and keep track of all of the money in that time period.

Arthur Hurd, who lost his wife in the shooting, also told me that he went into the church one day and saw three women sitting at a table. They were opening the bags and bags of mail that came in, including mail that was clearly addressed to the victims' families. And they were taking out cash and checks and putting them in different piles and not keeping any kind of log of the money.

And then shortly thereafter, the families and survivors began receiving mail, forwarded to them from the church that had been opened and some of the envelopes were marked empty. So, all of these things, combined along with some other things, really got people concerned and suspicious.

WORF: So why is SLED investigating the church's finances now? Does it relate to those complaints then?

HAWES: Well, we aren't sure because the the State Law Enforcement Division spokesman would confirm only that they had opened an active investigation, not the nature of it or what sparked it. And it's interesting because those issues have been swirling around out there for upward of four years now.

WORF: Among the accusations, have there been any as far as church leaders using the money to enrich themselves in some way?

HAWES: Well, people don't know one way or the other is the problem, because they don't know where the money went. There's not been an independent audit of the church's finances. The church did hire an outside auditor to look at one fund, the Moving Forward Fund, where they said they put all the donations, but they have never had an outside audit of all of the church's finances to see if money left the church or went to individuals or supported things that were not intended with those donations.

WORF: Besides transparency, what did the victims' families want from the church?

HAWES: Well, one of the key issues is that they wanted spiritual counseling from the church. And shortly after, Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors in particular, was asking the interim minister to come to her home and minister to her. She didn't want to return to the church. She didn't want to return to the fellowship hall in particular, where the shooting occurred.

Keep in mind that the church lost almost its entire ministerial staff in the shooting. Its senior pastor, a retired minister who was helping out, its licensed ministers — they were all killed. So, the interim pastor and those who remained were obviously just besieged with things to do. But on the other hand, Felicia was very hurt by the fact that nobody came to minister to her.

Other people told me the same things — that the interim pastor didn't send anybody to their homes, didn't send anybody to reach out to them. And that caused quite a bit of hurt. And in fact, Felicia and Polly and a number of the victims' family members all left the church and don't attend there anymore.

WORF: Have a lot of other people left the church?

HAWES: Well, the membership has certainly shrunk in terms of who is actually there on Sundays. The attendance is small — under 100 now on Sundays. But there are quite a number of visitors, so if you were to go to the church, you'd see that the sanctuary — at least the first floor — is not empty, certainly. But how many of those are Emanuel's members? So, it's a smaller number than it used to be.

WORF: Have some of these tensions among the victims' families and Felicia Sanders, for example, have they shown up among the general congregation?

HAWES: Yes, because people in the congregation, they know, Felicia. Felicia's family had gone to Emanuel for generations and generations and she had gone there her entire life. So, she was very deeply connected. So, you have people who are still connected with her. And she always stresses that her complaints don't have to do with the congregation. They have to do with the leadership of the church.

So, you have factions, of course, like in any church. You have groups who are very unhappy with the current minister and complain that they still are not receiving adequate financial reports as they're required from the church. But you have others who don't want to revisit any of this because they feel it's just digging up old hurts and keeping people from healing and moving forward. So, there's certainly not agreement among the members as to what should be done.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a reporter at the Post and Courier of Charleston and is the author of "Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey To Forgiveness."

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.