A five-count indictment was issued today by U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade’s office in the theft investigation of Rev. Edward Belczak, former pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Troy, Michigan.
Father Belczak and his parish administrator, Janice Verschuren, have been accused of stealing nearly $700,000 from parish funds, then using the money to purchase a luxury condominium in Palm Beach, Florida, and other items. If found guilty of the charges, which include mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, the two could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
The money in question, which was allegedly stolen between 2004 and 2012, included most of a gift to the church from the family of a deceased parishioner, as well as cash donations from special collections on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Prosecutors allege that the pair tried to conceal the theft by submitting false documents to the Archdiocese, under-reporting the amount of the parish’s collection income.
The Detroit Free Press provides important details:
Among the allegations are that Belczak used $109,570.80 from a parish bank account to put a down payment on a swanky Palm Beach, Fla. condo he was purchasing from Verschuren, according to documents previously filed by the FBI to seize the property. Belczak, since suspended as pastor, had approved false financial reports that were submitted to the Archdiocese of Detroit in an effort to conceal thefts, according to a news release from McQuade’s office.
In April 2006, a woman 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 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 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 would get first access to offerings church members gave on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, passing along empty envelopes and checks but no cash.
The Archdiocese of Detroit suspended Father Belczak in January 2013, after financial irregularities came to light at St. Thomas More, which is one of the archdiocese’s largest parishes. Belczak, who had pastored St. Thomas More for nearly 30 years, remains a priest but no longer exercises his priestly functions and has moved out of the residence which had been provided for his use. Verschuren resigned from her position at the parish.
The Archdiocese of Detroit released a statement pledging continued cooperation in the investigation. According to the Archdiocesan statement:
In January 2013, the Detroit Archdiocese announced that it had turned over its internal audit findings from St. Thomas More Parish in Troy to civil authorities because of possible financial discrepancies involving the pastor and office assistant. The federal criminal charges filed today would indicate the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit now believes there is a case to be prosecuted against Fr. Edward Belczak and Janice Verschuren. Both individuals have not served at the parish in over a year.
The archdiocese will continue to cooperate with authorities as this matter moves through the courts. As such, there is nothing more the archdiocese can or will say at this time.
Jerome Sabbota, the Royal Oak attorney who is defending Father Belczak, said Wednesday, “He’s presumed innocent and the conclusion is he is innocent. We haven’t seen any evidence. All we hear are allegations.”
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Obviously, this is a difficult time for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and for the parishioners of St. Thomas More Church, who placed their trust in their long-time pastor, Father Belczak. Please keep Father Belczak, the parish, and all concerned in your prayers.