Mich. Pastor Indicted on 5 Counts of Embezzlement for Alleged $700K Church Theft

A Michigan priest and one-time parish manager were indicted Wednesday on five counts relating to the alleged embezzlement of $700,000 in parish funds.

The Rev. Edward Belczak, 69, and one-time parish manager Janice Verschuren, 67, were indicted by a U.S. District Court on five counts of embezzlement from the St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Troy. The charges relate to mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy involving the alleged embezzlement of parish funds from 2004 to 2012, the Detroit Free Press reports.

According to the Sky-Valley Chronicle, Belczak, with the help of Verschuren, has been accused of pilfering church funds in a variety of ways for several years, including depositing bequeathed money into a secret bank account, stealing collection basket donations made by church members, and embezzling over $26,000 in commissions paid to the St. Thomas More Travel Group. The priest is also being accused of submitting false financial reports to the Archdiocese of Detroit to cover up his alleged theft.

Belczak was suspended from pastoring the St. Thomas More Catholic Church in January 2013 after leading the parish for nearly 30 years. Questions regarding the money handling at Belczak's parish were raised after an internal audit by the archdioceses revealed "questionable financial transactions and practices."

One of the most lavish expenses by Beczak, allegedly purchased with over $100,000 in church funds, was an upscale, $500,000 condominium in Palm Beach, Fla., that the FBI alleges was purchased by the priest in 2005 from Verschuren, who had owned the property with her former husband.

According to the Troy Patch, the priest's transgressions could land him 20 years in jail. Just last summer, congregants of the St. Thomas More Catholic Church pleaded with the archdiocese to return Belczak to their parish, forming the group Friends of Father Belczak and requesting that the investigation against the priest be dropped.

"Church attendance has dropped and I know donations are down. We're praying for him every week and saying the Reaching Out to Do More Prayer in hopes that he will be returned to us soon," Susan Stahl, an eight-year member of the church, told the Patch last summer.

Catholic Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron said Wednesday that the archdiocese "[wants] to cooperate fully with the civil authorities."

Belczak has maintained his innocence despite the recent indictment. Since his suspension, the priest has been able to conduct services at other local parishes when there has been a shortage of priests, as long as he receives prior approval from the archdiocese.