By Kirk Petersen
The executive director of one of the oldest Episcopal organizations in America allegedly treated its coffers as his personal piggy bank for years, misappropriating more than $1.4 million intended for the widows and orphans of Episcopal clergy in Pennsylvania, according to a forensic accounting report.
John A. Miller worked at the Clergy Assurance Fund (CAF) from 2001 until earlier this year, serving most recently as treasurer and executive director. The fund was founded in 1769 as The Widows Corporation, to provide financial support to the families of deceased Episcopal clergy. The fund had more than $80 million in assets in 2021, according to its annual report.
In a confidential July 11 letter obtained by TLC, the fund’s vice president, James L. Pope, told the members of the fund’s board: “between January 2016, and March 2022, Mr. Miller made duplicates of death benefit payments using fraudulent checks, some of which contained the forged signature of the Vice President of Clergy Assurance Fund. He paid the checks to himself and deposited them in his checking account in the total amount of $1,425,400. In addition, he had used the credit card for numerous personal expenditures, totaling $20,363.”
Reached by telephone, Pope referred an inquiry to Laura Solomon, the fund’s solicitor, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The diocesan bishops of the five dioceses in the state of Pennsylvania all serve as “members” of the corporation — essentially the board of directors — along with dozens of elected volunteers. The president of the corporation is the Rt. Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutiérrez, Bishop of Pennsylvania, which includes the greater Philadelphia area. Through a spokesperson, Gutiérrez said: “I was disappointed and devastated to learn of this potential fraud. Fortunately, it did not impact those who were seeking funds from CAF. I trust that the justice system will come to the correct resolution on this.”
Pope’s letter indicates that Miller was dismissed after the alleged misappropriations were discovered, and the matter was referred to the Pennsylvania attorney general and the FBI. It is not clear whether any criminal charges have been filed. Miller could not be reached for comment.
BBD, a Philadelphia-based accounting firm, conducted a forensic audit of CAF finances. In a report dated June 28, BBD wrote that on multiple occasions, “the payee of the death benefit was paid out of the PNC Investment account, but a separate duplicate check recorded in the accounting software as being payable to that beneficiary was cut to John Miller for the same amount as the death benefit. The authentic disbursement of death benefits to the beneficiary was recorded in the general ledger as a reduction in investment return and the duplicate payment was recorded as death benefit expense in the general ledger.”
The report also alleges Miller used his corporate credit card to charge $11,433 for personal healthcare expenses, and $8,930 for Uber rides and transportation, among other personal expenses.
“Despite this fraud and the unrelated reductions in market values in the second calendar quarter of 2022, Clergy Assurance Fund remains very well-funded, and can fully and promptly comply with all requests for policy death benefits from beneficiaries, as well as provide its wellness and other grants as it has before,” Pope wrote.
Miller’s family has been involved in the organization for centuries. In the fund’s 2021 Annual Report, Miller wrote: “only last year did I discover that our Founder, the Rev’d Dr. William Smith, was my sixth great-grandfather!” One of the allegedly unauthorized credit card payments was $204.12 to Ancestry.com, according to the forensic report.
Smith, who was provost of what became the University of Pennsylvania, served as president of The Widow’s Corporation from 1784 to 1789. Founding Fathers among the early members of the corporation included Alexander Hamilton, Robert Livingston, and John Jay. The corporation originally served three colonies, but separate organizations for New York and New Jersey were split off in 1806.
These and similar funds in other East Coast dioceses long pre-date the Church Pension Fund, which began operations in 1917.