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Ethics and Religion: Granddaughter's Theft?
Date: November 27, 2012
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - Working through any family squabbles this holiday season? This week's Ethics and Religion Talk stems from an MLive reader's question about the behavior of a live-in granddaughter.
Rabbi David Krishef lays out the horrible house-guest scenario below, then he and a Christian pastor share some thoughts on how to resolve the conflict.
Ethics and Religion Talk, by Rabbi David Krishef
Reader Tom asks, "My brother 'Greg' opened his home to his 20-year-old granddaughter, 'Josie,' so she could attend college locally. (Her parents recently moved to Florida, but she wanted to stay in the area.) He gave her free room and board, took her and her friends out to eat on a regular basis and replaced the engine in her car twice when she failed to put oil in it. In return, she ruined a brand new recliner couch, trashed her bedroom and never did a thing to help out around the house.
"One day Greg noticed that some of his collectible coins were missing. He talked with Josie and she admitted that she and a friend had stolen coins out of his collection, put them through the coin change machine and then spent the money. His losses were over $6,000. Greg felt she should pay back what she stole and wrote up a repayment contract, which she signed. That was over 6 months ago. She has moved out of the house and has yet to pay back a penny.
"What is the right thing to do in this situation: Let her get away with what she did, or turn her in to the police?"
- The Rev. Doug Van Doren, pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids
"This scenario stirs up conflicting emotions as well as ethics that can seem to be at odds. The bottom line is should Greg 'forgive' the behavior and just let it go, not holding his granddaughter accountable. But does forgiveness mean not holding one accountable, in this kind of situation? I think not. Greg can forgive her mistake, her foolishness and the fact that she has not yet learned how to be responsible and reciprocal. He can, and I hope does, still feel deep love and affection for her. It is, however, the responsibility of parents and in this case custodial grandparents to teach and shape their children. Stealing and taking advantage of others clearly goes against basic Christian principles. What is real love for Josie in this situation? Probably it is the deeper love of holding her accountable thus seeking to change her attitude and behavior.
"I also know that acting on this tough love, thereby not enabling this kind of behavior, is always extremely difficult. Ideally, Greg would have acted earlier by not allowing her to abuse his hospitality and generosity before it got this far. Not making her accountable earlier was enabling behavior. But, alas, one is almost always over the line before one realizes it! As tough as it sounds, I think he should tell her that if she doesn’t begin and continue to honor their payment agreement within a very short period of time, say a couple weeks, he will turn her over to the police. If she doesn’t, of course, he would have to follow through. Even then she may not learn, but she has a far better chance than if she is not held accountable. Real love isn’t always easy."
Van Doren's answer also reflects the basic Jewish belief that forgiveness requires a full repair of the damage done. Since this case involves the theft of a significant amount of money, I ran the question past an attorney to get his take on Greg's legal options:
"Since we're talking about ethics, one thing you might want to factor into your analysis is the permanency of the consequence. If he goes to the police, she will probably be charged with a crime and she will probably plead guilty or be found guilty of a crime. That is permanent, unless she is able to get it expunged, which is unlikely. The criminal conviction will follow her for the rest of her life. On the other hand, he could go to an attorney to help resolve the dispute through a civil suit with a resulting judgement. This doesn't necessarily lead to a long-term consequence, especially if it's resolved before he obtains a judgment. The granddaughter is less likely to be asked about it for the rest of her life on things like job applications than she would be about being charged with or convicted of a crime. While the grandfather has no doubt been wronged, if the wrong can be righted without causing his granddaughter to have a permanent criminal record, that seems to me to be more ethical than pursuing a course of action that results in a permanent negative consequence for his granddaughter."
So the "right thing to do" boils down to whether Greg just wants his granddaughter to pay back the money and thinks that a civil judgment will teach her the lesson that she needs, or whether he thinks that in order for her to learn to be fully accountable, she needs to experience the full weight of the law.
If Josie were your granddaughter, what would you do?
Ethics and Religion Talk is compiled and written by David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids. Krishef takes questions from readers and shares them with a panel of clergy, then provides the responses in collaboration with MLive.com reporter Matt Vande Bunte. Please submit questions from your own day-to-day encounters to EthicsAndReligionTalk@gmail.com.