The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) is trying to recoup up to $1.3 million lost in failed and fraudulent church plants, some of which existed only on paper. A late October report revealed that most convention churches started in the Rio Grande Valley from 1999 to 2005 have failed. Among 258 congregations started by three pastors in seven years, only 5 still gather.

BGCT executive director Charles Wade said he expected a legal opinion in mid-December on whether to turn over information to government authorities. The convention was also to learn if it has any recourse to recover some of the funds.

Convention leaders have been developing stricter guidelines for church-planting oversight, which they plan to present in February to the BGCT mission committee.

"We began revising our strategy last spring," Wade said. Complaints sparked an investigation in May. "The guidelines we had were okay. They were just ignored."

The BGCT hired an investigative team that found evidence of inaccuracies, falsified reports, and lax convention oversight of the church-starting program. Pastors Otto Arango, Aaron de la Torre, and Armando Vera reported 72 percent of the valley's 357 church starts over a seven-year period.

De la Torre gave the most damaging admission of wrongdoing. The pastor of Community Baptist Church in Hidalgo described a scheme where he turned over BGCT checks to Arango, who allegedly deposited them into his bank account and gave de la Torre 50 percent of the money.

De la Torre told investigators he wanted "to be honest before God" and offered to pay restitution. The report said the pastor admitted that all 89 churches he sponsored or co-sponsored were only cell groups.

Arango did not respond to CT's request for a comment.

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