Emanuel distributes donations to families

Emanuel AME Church has distributed to the nine victims’ families and five survivors $1.4 million it received in donations from around the world after a June 17 massacre in its fellowship hall.

Emanuel AME Church distributed $1.5 million in donations this week to families of the nine victims and survivors of the horrific mass shooting on June 17 in its fellowship hall.

The church kept about $1.8 million of the donations it received from an international outpouring of sympathy after the deaths.

Church leaders have said the vast majority of donations sent to Emanuel AME didn’t specify where the money should go. Therefore, church leaders opted to give family members and survivors more than $1 million in addition to roughly $280,000 that donors specified for them.

However, many family members were angered that the church kept more of the donations than it divided up among the nine families and five survivors.

“It’s just sad how the church continues to disrespect the families,” said the Rev. Sharon Risher, whose 70-year-old mother Ethel Lance died in the shooting.

Emanuel leaders will use the $1.8 million they retained for building maintenance needs along with an endowment, a memorial and scholarships. Another $78,000 specified for the city of Charleston Hope Fund will be sent there to be distributed, said Wilbur Johnson, the church’s attorney.

Victims’ family members and survivors received certified mail this week with checks and formal letters from the church.

“This sum represents the distribution to you of a percentage of the total amount of funds, calculated upon the basis of the number of immediate family members of the Emanuel 9 victims and survivors,” the form letter said.

The letters didn’t provide any more details about how much money the church received or how its leaders divided up those donations.

“There was nothing personal about it at all,” said Andy Savage, an attorney who represents several victims’ families and survivors Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard.

It was the latest in a string of incidents that have left some victims’ relatives feeling discounted by the church. In comparison, when city leaders distributed its Hope Fund, then-Mayor Joe Riley, city attorneys and others met with all of the families and survivors to offer personal condolences, discuss the distribution method and answer their questions.

Johnson told The Post and Courier that the church used roughly the same formula the city used to disburse the Hope Fund but also included additional family members “in an effort to broaden the reach of the donations and in recognition of the church’s pastoral outreach.”

The Hope Fund formula divided 55 percent of donations equally among the nine victims’ beneficiaries, 25 percent among the five shooting survivors, 10 percent among children of those killed, 5 percent to education expenses and 5 percent to a special needs account.

Thousands of donors from across the globe have opened their hearts and wallets to help those devastated after a racist gunman opened fire during the church’s Bible study last summer.

City officials have distributed two waves of donations from the Hope Fund already, the first for $2.5 million and the second for $600,000. A third and smaller distribution is coming.

Originally, the church planned to send the donations it received to the Hope Fund to be distributed using its formula. However, city attorneys declined to accept the donations due to a pending lawsuit and other questions raised about the church leadership’s handling of the donations.

“They initially asked if the city would be open to that, but because of the (Arthur) Hurd litigation and other concerns expressed to us from the family members and survivors, we said we don’t want to get into the middle of any dispute,” said Laura Evans, an attorney who oversaw the city’s Hope Fund distribution.

A judge’s order had prevented Emanuel AME from disbursing donations until a few weeks ago when a lawsuit against the church was dismissed. The husband of victim Cynthia Graham Hurd filed that suit last fall seeking an accounting of the donations after attorneys for the families accused the church of not being transparent.

Attorneys for Arthur Hurd and the church agreed that the lawsuit would look only at money church officials put into its Moving Forward Fund for donations. When the church turned over documents detailing donations placed into that fund, the suit was dismissed.

That lawsuit and an independent audit examined only the Moving Forward Fund, not any other accounts the church holds.

Several weeks after the shooting, Hurd said he saw three women sitting outside of an office for Presiding Elder Norvel Goff, who was interim pastor. Hurd said he watched the women open envelopes from bags of incoming mail, including those addressed to specific victims’ families, and then remove cash and checks from them.

Relatives of many victims’ family members have told the newspaper that they received mail from the church that was addressed to them but had been opened without their permission.

This week, when Hurd received a check for $50,000, his portion of donations from the church, he was surprised because it was much less than he expected. It also included no explanation of how the donations were divided up.

“I feel like it says, ‘Take this and shut up,’ ” Hurd said.

Meanwhile, not all family members had received their portion of the donations by late Friday, including the wife of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor who was killed in the massacre, according to her attorney, state Sen. Gerald Malloy.

“They’ve not contacted me at all,” Malloy said.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.