Since 2001, the Religious Institute has been a staunch advocate for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society.
Based in Westport, it works tirelessly to assist clergy, congregations and denominational bodies nationwide in addressing sexuality and reproductive health. It also helps sexual and reproductive health organizations address religious issues, and reach out to faith communities.
Its existence was severely threatened recently — but not by conservative politicians or anti-abortion evangelicals.
In February, 64-year-old Rev. Steven Clapp of Fort Wayne, Indiana told the Religious Institute that The Christian Community Inc. — the non-profit he’d run since 1996, and which managed the Religious Institute’s money — was broke. Nearly $425,000 was gone.
On March 18, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette said that Clapp attributed the loss to “bad financial decisions.”
Now, however, the paper reports that Clapp’s criminal record has “come to light.” In 1988 he was convicted of fraud, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay more than $2.1 million in restitution.
After serving 56 months, Clapp was released. His probation ended a year before he took over the Religious Institute’s finances, the Journal Gazette said.
The Religious Institute does not have tax-exempt status. That’s why Christian Community was a “fiscal sponsor,” taking donations and paying bills and staff.
Rev. Debra Haffner — the Religious Institute’s executive director, and community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — described herself as “disbelieving. It felt very difficult to reconcile that to the person I had known since 1998,” she told the paper.
“The initial news was horrible, but the extent of the betrayal and how long it’s gone on is even more difficult.”
She added, “If we were the only victim, I would really be questioning my own judgment at this time. But there are many organizations and many victims … He was obviously very good at what he did in a way that’s horrifying.”
Clapp’s audits showed that Christian Community’s finances were sound. However, the Journal Gazette said, a 2009 audit was signed with a Chicago name that does not match any licensed accountants in Illinois or Indiana.
Yet despite its enormous financial loss, the Religious Institute survives. According to an email sent by Rev. Hafner, 2/3 of the annual budget was raised in just 5 weeks, and several foundations are considering emergency grants. The organization is applying for non-profit status.
On the Institute’s website, Rev. Hafner wrote:
Our 2012 work will continue because it must. Even during this crisis we have continued to speak out on reproductive justice, LGBT equality, and sexuality education on television, radio, and in print media.
In a few weeks we are convening an amazing group of theologians to develop a new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on contraception. We are moving ahead with our plans for the Rachel Sabbath Initiative on Mother’s Day weekend, and I’m back to co-writing our new guide for congregations on the internet.
And, while waiting for IRS non-profit approval, Westport’s Unitarian Church has stepped up to serve as temporary fiscal agent.
Last weekend, both the Christian and Jewish faiths celebrated renewal. Now — after a frightening few weeks — the Religious Institute is doing the same.