By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
ST. FRANCIS – Escaped from an abusive relationship, pregnant with her fourth set of twins, lost wallet, no food for her family.
Deborah Johnson or Anderson, as she often refers to herself, told several Milwaukee area Catholic churches she was all these things as part of a seemingly endless number of heartbreaking stories and requests for money, church officials say.
“My parents committed suicide and I need money to get to their funeral,” she told pastors and parishioners. “I need money to pay for the funeral of my son who was killed by a hit and run driver. I need bus money to get to Madison to see my dying son who has been hospitalized for over a year. I need gas money so I can deal with a family crisis.”
In reality, a cautionary notice distributed to parishes by the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Chancery office describes the middle-aged woman as 160-170 pounds with light reddish brown hair and glasses as a smooth talking con artist who has repeatedly preyed on area churches and their unsuspecting parishioners in recent months. Her suspected scams have caused a stir among Milwaukee area churches, with pastors and officials from nearly a dozen parishes claiming they’ve been swindled out of hundreds or thousands of dollars in church funds or private donations which could have been used for needy causes.
Anne E. Schwartz, public relations manager of the Milwaukee Police Department, said the police have received no reports of this behavior because this type of panhandling is not illegal.
“This is not a crime,” she said, “giving panhandlers money is a sure way to keep them coming back for more. Unfortunately, they tend to prey on churches thinking that they will give them money.”
Illegal or not, the money given in good faith to this woman could have been used for someone who really needed the help, said Karen Gasperetti, administrative assistant at St. Roman Parish, Milwaukee.
“We have become a bit more strict with the way we help others at the parish,” she said. “She got her money from the parishioners because we typically don’t give money from the office. Sometimes if the priest determines that the story is legitimate, he will discern whether to give or not.”
The first time St. Roman members learned of Deborah was three years ago, after she appeared with children in tow. Gasperetti remembers feeling very sorry for the woman.
“She used to visit regularly and her stories made you feel very sorry for her,” she said. “In fact, she brought me an angel that I still have sitting by my desk. I’m not sure where she got it – she may have stolen it from her mother because her mother no longer wanted to help her. I often see that angel, pray for her, and ask God to give her a sense of reality. Some people just don’t have reality.”
To most members, Deborah didn’t fit the stereotypical idea of a scam artist in part, because she was clean-cut, neatly dressed and soft spoken. She blended into the parish community, often with one or more children in tow.
A recent notice in the bulletin at St. Mary Church, Menomonee Falls, portrayed her as polite, with a small black boy approximately 8- to 10-years-old.
“This woman’s tales of woe range from escaping from an abusive relationship, to various other misfortunes,” the article said. “Her recent endeavor is approaching parishioners after Mass asking for gas money, stating she has a family crisis. She travels about in a van and is known to live near Mitchell Field. Please be aware of this scam and if you are approached by this individual or anyone else requesting money, please refer them to the parish office. During the course of the year, we get a fair number of people who stop in and ask for help. Our caring ministry is set up to screen these people and work with those who legitimately need help.”
Other parishes impacted by this woman’s sob stories include St. Veronica, Milwaukee; St. Mary Visitation, Elm Grove; Christ King, Wauwatosa; St Hyacinth, Milwaukee and Mary Queen of Heaven, West Allis.
St. Dominic Parish in Brookfield is one of the first known victims of the swindle, affirmed Debbie Caputo, director of Christian Formation.
“At first she came to the office and our human concerns director, Susan McNeill, went and got her some stuff from the food pantry,” she said. “But the last reports we had was that she was coming to morning Mass where a lot of our older parishioners go, and they gave her money.”
Most Catholics want to help and follow Matthew 35 35-45, where Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me … in so far as you did this to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
In an attempt to ensure that donations are given to those who are truly in need, announcements in St. Dominic’s bulletin have been made. Plans also include visiting the parish senior group to inform them of this ongoing fraud with an appeal to hold on to their money.
“Please don’t give out of your pocket,” she said. “Refer the person to the priest or office because this is a scam artist and we need to pass the word.”
While St. Dominic Parish often provides groceries or gasoline to those in need, they generally refer individuals wanting cash to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which assesses the situation before providing help.
“We send the Vincentians out to the houses and to the Catholic churches to see what is needed inside the house before even writing an order for anything,” assured Carol Griffin, store manager of the Council of Milwaukee Thrift Stores on Lincoln Avenue.
Despite the stringent assessment process, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is no stranger to those taking advantage of generosity.
“I have people come in who fraud the certificates we write for things,” she said. “We typically will give an order for beds, clothing, and other items for the home, but often people will add on to that and think they can get away with more. We always find out and tell them that we know what they have done, and we always follow through.”
For the average parishioner approached by an individual asking for money, Griffin has this advice.
“Tell the person you don’t have funds to help at this time,” she said. “We can do an assessment to see if they are truly in need because scam artists are really taking money from the poor. There is somebody out there that needs help and they are taking money from people who really want to help those in need and using it for themselves.”