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Question 16: How can an elderly man make up for many years of fraud?

My eldest brother’s wife died three years ago, and he now is in a nursing home, where I visit him every week. He is sixty-seven and dying of lung cancer. As a young man, he went to work in the coal pits. He began at sixteen and worked until he was forty-five, when he was disabled by losing his right arm in what we all thought was an accident. Now he tells me he did it on purpose. He saw more and more of his buddies coming down with lung disease, wanted out, and decided to retire on disability. By claiming that his handicap resulted from a work related accident, he managed to collect disability benefits until he was sixty-five, and over the years he also cashed in on other public and private assistance programs, raising his family and surviving in meager comfort.

My brother has not gone to church since his wife died. His conscience does not seem to bother him about that, but he is troubled about all the money he collected for his disability. He seems to feel he should admit what he did. I told him to talk with the priest who takes care of the nursing home, but he does not want to do that. I think he is afraid the priest would tell him he must repay all the disability money. But he has no money and no way of getting any. He no longer receives disability, but the government pays for the nursing home.

I would like to know what somebody in my brother’s position has to do. If I could get him to see what it is and do it, I think it would help him so that he could die with a peaceful conscience.


The explicit question concerns the duty to make restitution. Though the questioner’s brother does owe restitution to those he defrauded, nobody has an obligation to do what is truly impossible. Still, the brother can make restitution in spiritual goods to those he injured. The implicit question is how to help him prepare for death. The questioner should identify a suitable priest with whom his or her brother might be willing to talk and cooperate with that priest’s effort to provide appropriate pastoral care.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your regular, weekly visits to your brother show that you love him. Now you wish to help him spiritually, and rightly so. Nothing is more important than that he prepare his soul for death, and you should assume his salvation depends on your help. Of course, only God can read hearts, and we must not judge anyone’s internal guilt—and you do not seem inclined to judge your brother. Still, not only can we evaluate others’ outward actions by moral standards, but at times we cannot help thinking they probably have been guilty of mortal sins.

Those who have committed mortal sins cannot be saved unless God’s grace turns them from sin and creates new hearts in them (see q. 6, above). The most important thing you can do for your brother from now on is to pray for him and ask others to pray for him, so that, if he is not living in God’s love, the Holy Spirit will move him to repent, restore him to grace, renew his faith and hope, and sanctify him through the regular and devout reception of the sacraments, and good works. An excellent way for you to begin to fulfill this responsibility would be to have Mass offered for the intention that your brother die in God’s love, participate devoutly in that Mass yourself, and invite other relatives and friends to do so. You also could pray to St. Joseph for your brother’s happy death, and to the Blessed Mother: “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

The working conditions of miners when your brother labored in the coal pits very likely were the product of pervasive social and economic injustices. Understandably resentful and fearful for his life, he desperately took what probably seemed to him the only way out: deliberately disabling himself. Then he could not survive and support his family except by keeping up the pretense that he had lost his arm by accident. Objectively, however, what he had done was a gravely evil means to his good end. Even if he could have collected disability benefits and other assistance from public and private programs without lying, what he did objectively was grave fraud. And his failure to practice his faith since his wife’s death objectively has been grave neglect of his religious duties.

If your brother is in a state of mortal sin, a peaceful conscience may not be enough to save him from hell. People with consciences in culpable error can be at peace due to self-deception, and such peaceful consciences block repentance (see CMP, 78–80 and 92–93). It is a good sign that his conscience is bothering him. Of course, he needs confident hope in God’s mercy, so that he will wholeheartedly repent any and every mortal sin of which he is guilty. Though perhaps tempted to despair, he also seems ready to repent, for, after all these years, he has told you his secret and seems to feel he should admit what he did. Most important is that he admit it to our Lord and receive his forgiveness.

Therefore, I think you should ask a priest to visit your brother, talk things over with him, and try to get him to make a good confession. Your suggestion that he talk with the priest at the nursing home was appropriate, but he may have some reason for not wishing to talk with that particular priest. Before your next visit to the nursing home, then, try to find another priest, faithful to the Church’s teaching and gentle in manner, with whom your brother might be willing to talk. Perhaps you know a good priest he once knew and liked, or else one who is the sort of person he would like. If necessary, contact the diocesan office and seek help in identifying a suitable priest.

Having chosen a priest, tell him not only what you have told me but anything else that might help him understand your brother’s situation and his unwillingness to talk with the priest at the nursing home. If he asks you any questions, be very careful to answer them accurately and honestly. Also, tell him that you asked me what your brother has to do by way of restitution, and that I offered the following thoughts for his consideration.

In general, those who cause others to suffer an injustice owe them restitution (see LCL, 444–58). Your brother did injustices to those on whom his disabling himself imposed various burdens and hardships. Still, the injustices under which he labored and his desperation certainly mitigated the gravity of the injustices he did. Moreover, though he was responsible for his own disability, his family was not, and surely they, if not he, rightly accepted the assistance they received. Most important, in making restitution, nobody is morally required to do the impossible. So, unless your brother gets some money, he need never repay what he received and should not worry about that. Nevertheless, he can and should make restitution by praying for all those harmed by his wrongdoing, offering his suffering and dying for them, and accepting God’s saving grace so that he will be able to intercede in heaven for them. If he comes to see his situation in this light, his concern to make up for what he did is likely to arouse his hope and lead him to desire to receive the sacraments worthily.

Probably it will be best to tell your brother in advance you have asked the priest to come. You might lay some groundwork by telling him you have been thinking over what he told you, and you are sure he can make up for what he did; he need only do what he can, since God never asks anyone to do the impossible. You also might remind him of the good thief, who, admitting his crimes and asking Jesus to remember him, at once received the promise: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23.43). Like every human person who will share in heavenly glory, the thief received as Jesus’ free gift the thing of greatest value, which cannot be stolen. Yet one could say jokingly that the thief made his best haul that day and stole Paradise, and you might encourage your brother, who has been cheating people for more than twenty years, to do likewise. Finally, remind him that, if he confesses his sins, the priest will keep his secrets as if he had never heard them, since a priest’s duty in hearing confessions is to make available to each penitent Jesus’ patient ears, merciful heart, and forgiving words.

These, however, are only my thoughts, considering your brother’s situation from a distance. When you have talked with the priest, he will decide how best to proceed. Accept his judgment and cooperate with him. Your brother, very likely, will make a good confession, receive Communion and the sacrament of anointing, and be ready to die devoutly. And if not? The priest may wish to drop in from time to time. If so, keep in touch with him and follow his advice. If not, tell the priest who takes care of the nursing home about your brother’s situation, so that he can look for the right moment to try to talk with him. Meanwhile, do not nag your brother, and continue to visit him and listen to what he has to say. By doing what you can for him, you will make it clear that you love him. You should keep on praying for him and also should invite him to pray with you for everything that concerns you, not least his well-being.

If your brother seems to die unrepentant, beg our Lord to be merciful to him, and be consoled that you have done your best for him. And remember that only God knows what is in human hearts.