Mich. priest indicted for nearly $700,000 church theft

Mich. priest indicted for nearly $700,000 church theft

Credit: Catholic Archdiocese of Michigan

Mich. priest indicted for nearly $700,000 church theft

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by Robert Allen and Patricia Montemurri, Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY

WHAS11.com

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 10:38 AM

TROY, Mich. (USA TODAY) — The suspended pastor and the onetime parish manager of Troy St. Thomas More Catholic Church were indicted Wednesday for allegedly embezzling nearly $700,000 in parish money, pilfering from special holiday collections, the church's travel group and the bequest of a deceased parishioner.

The Rev. Edward Belczak, 69, of Troy, and Janice Verschuren, 67, of Bloomfield Hills were named in a five-count indictment in U.S. District Court, alleging mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy involving missing parish funds from 2004 to 2012.

Among the allegations are that Belczak used $109,570.80 diverted from a parish bank account to put a down payment on a swanky Palm Beach, Fla., condo he purchased in 2005 from Verschuren, according to documents filed Monday by the FBI to seize the property.

Belczak, suspended in January 2013 as St. Thomas More's pastor, had approved and submitted false financial reports to the Archdiocese of Detroit in an effort to conceal the alleged thefts, according to a news release from the office of U.S. District Attorney Barbara McQuade.

In April 2006, a female parishioner, described as E.M., died and left $420,204.52 to be used "for the needs of the church," according to the indictment. Belczak received the parishioner's bequest in two checks, depositing them into a business money-market account he opened but kept secret from the archdiocese. Then he spent the money on himself, according to the indictment.

Belczak, assisted by Verschuren, is accused of stealing nearly $500,000 donated or bequeathed by church members, more than $26,000 in commissions paid to the St. Thomas More Travel Group, and more than $33,000 owed to St. Thomas More Church by Diocesan Publications — in addition to the amount used for the Palm Beach property.

The five-count indictment also details how Verschuren intercepted offerings church members gave on Mother's Day and Father's Day, passing along empty envelopes and checks but no cash.

In January 2013, the Archdiocese of Detroit suspended Belczak after an internal audit suggested Belczak embezzled some $429,000 from the parish he had led for nearly 30 years. Verschuren also left the parish at the time.

"We want to cooperate fully with the civil authorities," Catholic Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron said Wednesday.

Belczak's attorney, Jerome Sabbota, said his client is innocent.

"My client is not happy. Nobody that gets indicted is happy. He looks forward to doing what he has to do," Sabbota said. Asked about whether Belczak has stayed at the Florida property, Sabbota said Belczak has remained in the Detroit area.

A website titled "Friends of Father B" at www.bringbackfatherb.com, promotes Belczak's innocence. It features photos of a smiling Belczak presiding over weddings, and a frequently-asked-questions section that seeks to explain allegations about some of the parish money at issue.

Supporters are encouraged to write Vigneron and even Pope Francis in an effort to return Belczak to his old parish. The site provides a P.O. box address to write to Belczak and asks for donations to provide for his defense. An e-mail to the site's contact was not immediately returned.

The site also features a note said to be written by Belczak in December:

"I would have never expected a year like this, yet I am at peace with all that has happened. Losing my job, home, and good reputation has brought me to my knees and here I found God awaiting me. His Grace has never left me and his assurance continues to direct me," the Belczak message reads. "I sense his presence everyday working on my behalf and I struggle to align myself to his time frame and not my own. I am reminded daily that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, perceiving as real fact what is not yet revealed to the senses."

Belczak has been allowed to conduct church services at other parishes throughout the Detroit area, provided he seeks permission in advance from the archdiocese, said archdiocese spokesman Joe Kohn.

Belczak recently had permission to fill in at masses at St. Kenneth Church in Plymouth, Kohn confirmed, while the church's pastor was on vacation. St. Kenneth's pastor is the Rev. Thomas Belczak, who is Edward Belczak's brother.

As a suspended priest, Belczak continues to draw his salary, said Kohn, but the archdiocese is not paying for his defense. Internal church proceedings to permanently remove Belczak as the pastor of St. Thomas More, however, are on hold because of the criminal proceedings and the intricacies of church law, said Kohn.

Kohn would not disclose Belczak's salary but noted pay for priests ranges from $27,500 to the mid-$30,000 range with benefits.

St. Thomas More Parish, meanwhile, cannot be assigned a permanent replacement pastor until the legal and church proceedings against Belczak are completed, said Kohn. In the meantime, a pastor from a nearby parish is temporarily assigned as an administrator of the 2,500-member parish.

 

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