A deadly orphanage fire in Haiti has been linked to this U.S. Christian group

Wreckage from the Haitian children's home run by the Church of Bible Understanding. (Photo source: HaitiforChrist.net)
Wreckage from the Haitian children's home run by the Church of Bible Understanding. (Photo source: HaitiforChrist.net)

A self-described church that was once parodied on the classic sitcom “Seinfeld” has been implicated in an orphanage fire in Haiti in which as many as 16 children died. 

An investigation by journalists and condemnation by the Haitian government in 2012 and 2013 called out the abhorrent conditions of the children’s home. 

But for years thereafter it remained neglected and unnoticed — until this February. 

That’s when candles, used for illumination after the facility’s electrical generators broke down, caused the deadly fire. 

Now, the wealthy Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, Pa., is facing new government scrutiny for its allegedly charitable activities in Haiti, and its nonprofit status is in question. 

“Dirty and overcrowded”

After Haiti was devastated in 2010 by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, less-than-reputable charities exploited the situation, overwhelming the Haitian government’s capacity to monitor and control them. 

The Church of Bible Understanding was one such organization. 

The church, which has only a few dozen members, some of whose followers live communally, ran the Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning service in New York City in the 1990s, which was parodied on “Seinfeld” as the Sunshine Carpet Cleaning Cult. 

More recently they’ve been bringing in millions of dollars each year selling high-end antique fixtures in New York and Los Angeles.

Yet very little of this money is spent on its two Haitian orphanages. 

Indeed, the facilities did not pass government inspection in 2012, and surprise visits by Associated Press journalists in 2013 revealed conditions that foreshadowed this year’s fatal fire.

The boys and girls home was “dirty and overcrowded,” the journalists reported. “Bunk beds with faded and worn mattresses were crowded into dirty rooms. Sour air wafted through the bathrooms and stairwells. Rooms were dark and spartan, lacking comforts or decoration.”

Abandoned children

There are far worse places for children in Haiti — the vast majority of whom are not even orphans. 

These facilities are more accurately referred to as residential care centers for children that have been abandoned by parents who can’t take care of them. 

The government has placed hundreds of facilities like the Church of Bible Understanding’s “orphanages” on warning lists, and the numerous charities running them have promised to do better.

But enforcement has been lacking. 

Indeed, Haiti’s government is so dysfunctional and under-budgeted that it could not even provide ambulances or bottled oxygen for dying children after the February fire. 

The Church of Bible Understanding, meanwhile, has been in Haiti since 1977, and has so far disavowed any responsibility for the tragedy. 

Questionable charity

But Pennsylvania authorities and local news media have begun to question the allegedly charitable group’s motives. 

The organization, which has been described as a cult, has a long and sordid history, and was given a court order prohibiting it from sheltering runaway youth.

Tax records in 2017 for the organization — which ran the Haitian children’s home that couldn’t even afford working electrical generators — showed $6.6 million in revenue, but only $2.2 million in expenses. 

A report in PA Homepage said that the group, which has received federal funding for its work, claims $20 million in assets, but spent just $600,000 to run its orphanages.

A complaint by a missionary unaffiliated with the group said that the children’s home that burned lacked adequate sleeping facilities, including mattresses, and had no fire extinguishers.

Sources: Philly Voice, Al Jazeera, PA Homepage (1, 2), Associated Press, Fox56 (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.), University of Virginia School of Law

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