Is It Legal to Get Rich From False Doomsday Proclamations?
Regardless of one's personal thoughts and beliefs about the end of the world, a question arises about the legality of getting rich from making fasle doomsday proclamations. Given the current failure of Harold Camping in successfully predicting the end of the world on Saturday, May 21 at 6:00 pm, Pacific Standard Time, a question arises about the legality of the riches he received from his followers who believed they were heading to heaven.
Should religious leaders be charged with fraud if followers "donate" savings, land, and possessions to such men or women based on a specific 'prophecy" that failed to come true? Do such men and women have a duty to return the money and land deeded to them under such circumstances?
In this latest situation, tens of thousands of Camping's followers did just that. They donated all their possessions fearful that they would be judged as doubters if they kept their belongings. The punishment would be eternal damnation. Does instilling such a fear constitute a legal case of fraud, prosecutable by legal authorities?
Camping did not return any of the money he collected after his 1994 false doomsday proclamation. He was not charged with breaking any legal laws or statutes. Will the same hold true for this latest miscalculation? How about the Internal Revenue Service, will they investigate his earnings to ascertain whether he properly declared the sum total of revenue received?
Legal versus Ethical
It could be argued that Camping's followers made voluntary contributions to the church and as such the contributions cannot be considered a case of criminal fraud. Ethically there can easily be a consensus that he needs to return the money to his congregation because he was wrong and now his followers are penniless. However can he be forced to return the money based on ethical issues?
Normally such matters are settled in a different court that handles pain and suffering liability cases. Perhaps that is the route his congregation will be forced to consider if he does not return the money on his own.
Another Bernie Madoff
Recent comparisons to the financier Bernard Madoff have come up. Madoff's "contributors" also voluntarily turned over their life-savings only to find they had been defrauded. Is there a legal difference between what Madoff did and what Camping has done? It will be interesting to see how this continues to play out in the court of law and the court of public opinion.
What Now for the Followers?
Camping's followers were sincere and genuine in their beliefs. Many are now homeless and without jobs or personal possessions because they believed what Harold Camping preached. Followers were observed in a dejected and confused state of mind as the due time approached and passed without incident. What's next for such ones? According to the San Francisco IB Times, believers Joel and Adrienne Martinez budgeted everything so that they wouldn't have anything left. Others sold their possessions in order to travel to different countries to pass out leaflets warning others in advance. What legal recourse will such ones have at their disposal?
Where is Harold Camping?
Naturally the media are curious to hear from Harold Camping. He did make a brief appearance in which he stated he was flabbergasted and looking for answers. Camping added he would be back to work Monday (May 23) and would have more to say at that time. Only time will tell what results from this false doomsday proclamation. Perhaps the Internet will play a part in making sure prophets who get rich as the result of false proclamations will have to answer for their mistakes. Will a mere apology or acknowledgement of error suffice for the suffering both emotional and financial?