Prayer Need: Detroit-Area Priest Indicted on Theft Charges

Prayer Need: Detroit-Area Priest Indicted on Theft Charges April 23, 2014

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.

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  • bosco49

    Prayers for all concerned, of course, and for a just resolution of the matter.
    I could not help but note Father Belczak was the pastor at St. Thomas More for nearly 30 years, a tenure which strikes me as extraordinarily long.
    I wonder if this long-term tenure is the exception or the rule in the Diocese of Detroit and whether, if the rule, it is a wise practice.
    In the diocese where I hail from in Pennsylvania priests are ‘rotated’ every 6 years or less.

    • kathyschiffer

      I don’t know why he was left in the position for so long. Expressed preference? A niche (such as language fluency)? In the Archdiocese of Detroit, I believe pastors typically stay for six years, then may be reassigned for one more six-year period. I know of no other cases where the same pastor has been at one parish for 30 years.

    • NicholasBeriah Cotta

      Shepherds usually stick it out with their flocks around here (DEETROIT). St. Thomas More is a wealthy parish and Father Ed was well liked and was a large personality – there are a few factors that contributed to poor oversight, not the least being the fallen nature of mankind.

      Plus, he could turn out to be innocent! I’ll pray for him and all of the members there.

    • AndreaMaciejewski

      My understanding is that older priests in the AOD tend to be allowed to stay. Fr. Tony at St. Hugo in Bloomfield Hills has been there over 20 years. I know from personal family experience that there is some choice allowed in being transferred. Regardless, praying for Fr. Bel czar and all involved!

    • Athelstane

      “I wonder if this long-term tenure is the exception or the rule in the Diocese of Detroit and whether, if the rule, it is a wise practice.”

      I actually think there’s something to be said for allowing priests to stick in a parish for longer than six years. The six year rule that prevails now seems to be a tool for bishops who are too conflict averse to removing problem priests – they simply wait out the six years if possible.

      There’s just no substitute for vigorous lay involvement in a parish’s leadership (and finances), strong vocations, and good diocesan oversight.