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A vulnerable victim?
Having read and studied the report, “A Vulnerable Victim,”I thoroughly agree with Quaker Stewardship Committee's view that the report should be “mandatory, as a start, at least for all the elders and overseers.”

This excellent report is comprehensive and John Welton of East Devon MM has done a marvellous job in responding to the brief from North Somerset and Wiltshire Monthly Meeting (NSWMM) and achieving their endorsement of the final report. Their endorsement gracefully acknowledges “corporate failure of adequate oversight and appropriate support” and recommends that it should be made available “as felt appropriate by Quaker Stewardship Committee.”

On reading the report, I was conscious of the brief and that the sources for this report were Quaker minutes, reports, accounts and meetings attended by the author. The first full draft was made available to as many members of NSWMM as wanted a copy and in fact 60 copies were distributed. There were 14 responses of varying length. These were all reviewed and changes made to the draft. John wrote this report for the meeting, in all senses of the word – a difficult assignment. In the section on Methods John is clear on the focus of the report:-

“… the situation that enabled the misappropriation to take. Taking the view that the purpose of the report is to enable Friends in NSWMM and elsewhere to decrease the likelihood of anything similar happening again, the report focuses on what could be learned rather than the actions of a single Friend.”

He also sought to avoid apportioning blame or responsibility.

The provenance of the report clearly had a major hand in its emphasis and conclusions and NSWMM were after all the participants in this tragic series of events. In contrast, I am writing this analysis of the report, with no axe to grind and to ask a different set of questions, which Friends might consider.

The Judge at the Crown Court hearing referred to the Religious Society of Friends as “a vulnerable victim” and the report follows this theme. In his conclusions John refers to “Friends combined concern for recovery of funds with trying to discern what would be right for all the people who had been affected, including the former Treasurer , many of whom felt shocked and damaged by what had happened. “ (It is clear from the Report that most of the funds have been recovered, so the residual damage to members of NSWMM would appear to be a combination of hurt, anger, bewilderment, disappointment and perhaps some guilt – “The issue is that we did not have the systems for it to be detected.”)

While John avoids focusing on the guilty Treasurer, there is a lot of information on his personal circumstances and Friends might like to consider whether he could in any way be described as “a vulnerable victim.” The sequence of events is as follows:-

• In '99, X transfers from Yorkshire to take a job in an accountancy firm in Somerset and starts attending Sidcot PM.

• NSWMM starts nomination process and identifies X as a potential candidate for the post of MM Treasurer.

• X “expressed reluctance to take on more voluntary work but said he would accept the position if no one else could be found.”

• Nominations Committee did not make any contact with the nominees previous MM, nor did they check on his professional qualifications. (While I am not sure that this would have revealed anything untoward, it was a serious omission.)

• By August 2001, it was reported that X had difficulties with his employer because of the amount of time spent on MM work. He resigns, sets up his own business and becomes self-employed.

• In early 2002, X is finding returns from his business inadequate and asks to be relieved of his appointment as MM Treasurer. MM could not find a replacement and the appointment of an Assistant Treasurer failed.

• X succumbs to temptation and begins his campaign of fraud in 2002. Just under £70K was fraudulently withdrawn in that year.

• A further £100K was withdrawn in 2003. £23K was repaid by X to avoid a bounced cheque and probable premature discovery.

• The New Treasurer was appointed in February 02 but it was not until 1st June that he saw the first bank statement. The game was in its final stages.

• On the 10th June X made his first confession and the following day disappeared. On the 16th he returned and undertook to assist MM officers.

• On 3rd July NSWMM informed the police. On the 7th October he entered a guilty plea of 38 incidents of theft- 15 charges with 23 others to be taken into account. On 10th October X was sentenced to 14 months – but released after 3½.

There is no doubt in my mind that X was an extremely vulnerable victim who has paid a terrible price for the crime. I do not get the impression that X was a career criminal but that he got sucked in and probably suffered agonies from 2002 onwards.

The case raises, I believe, fundamental issues about how members of the Society see themselves and each other. At the risk of stating the obvious, members are human and subject to the same frailties as others. Circumstances may combine, at any time, so that we find ourselves in a situation that we commit a criminal act. It is entirely appropriate that, with some humility, we consider the case of X and realise “There but for the grace of God…” While no system, or organisation will be proof against a determined and professional criminal, we need to make it a lot more difficult for the Society to be the victim of criminal activity. This is realistic and needs to take precedence over the somewhat smug view that all members of the Society are special in some way and that Quaker trust, as a principle, is paramount. X – and his family - have paid a terrible price and Quaker trust was a factor in the chain of events.

In my opinion, the issue is not that NSWMM did not have the systems for the fraud to be detected, as they concede in their endorsement of the report, but that apparently nobody, other than the Treasurer, looked at the bank statements for nearly 2½ years and asked the right questions.

The short article by Jonathan Hodgkin, headed “A Vulnerable Victim” in the Friend of 21st July, while recommending that the reading of this report should be mandatory, “at least for all elders and overseers”, also refers to a set of “comprehensive recommendations for prevention of any similar reoccurrence anywhere.” While QSC can make recommendations, implementation is key. The Charity Commission Enquiry Report (Appendix 2), Clause 15 is explicit:-

“It is the fundamental duty of all charity trustees to protect the property of their charity and to secure its application for the objects of the charity. In order to discharge this duty it is essential there are adequate internal financial and administrative controls over the charity's assets and their use.”

This was not the case at North Somerset and Wiltshire Monthly Meeting. It begs the question what other Monthly Meetings – and Treasurers – are similarly “vulnerable.”

Alan Sealy


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