Michigan church elder arrested for allegedly embezzling $800K from congregation

St. John's United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids, Michigan | Google Street View

A Michigan man is facing felony charges after being accused of stealing some $800,000 from his church in Grand Rapids. 

According to the Grand Rapids Police Department, 55-year-old Christian Bileth has been accused of stealing more than $812,000 from St. John’s United Church of Christ between March of 2014 until the end of 2019. He is reported to have turned himself into police before being released on bond. 

According to the Michigan Penal Code, embezzlement of over $100,000 is punishable by no more than 20 years in prison and a fine of no more than three times the value of the money embezzled. This means that Bileth could face a fine of up to $2.4 million.

Sgt. John Wittkowski told Fox17 that the information about the missing funds was presented to the department last July. 

According to the police's incident report, the balance in the church’s investment accounts did not match the church’s records between May 2018 and May 2019. 

“A member of the church who located through their internal investigation some impropriety with regards to the handling of church finances,” Wittkowski said in his interview with the West Michigan-based news outlet. 

“After their internal investigation, they contacted the police department, and then we picked up the criminal investigation from there.”

According to online documents, Bileth served most recently as the church’s council president. However, a new council president took over last May. 

The police document indicates that after a co-signer on the church’s investment accounts died, Bileth dragged his feet when others at the church tried to put someone else on the account for accountability reasons. 

Even though he eventually stopped attending the church, he remained the church’s council president because he was seen as a respected community member. 

“It was somewhat unique in that he had ties to the church because he was a member, and he was seen as an elder and someone in leadership,” Wittkowski told the news outlet. 

The church eventually discovered that an unapproved check had been written out to Core Audit Consultants, a company in which Bileth served as president. Congregants informed investigators that Bileth was the only person able to author checks for the church during that time. 

Police claim that Core Audit Consultants is where Bileth funneled the missing money over the course of the last six years. 

“I’m not saying for a second that this particular church didn’t do all they could do as far as oversight and accountability,” the police sergeant told Fox17. “But if you overly trust or put most or all the responsibility in the hands of a single individual, you’re opening yourself up for impropriety.”

Bileth is far from the first person accused of embezzling funds from a church. 

Last February, a church secretary at a Baptist church in New Jersey was arrested after being accused of stealing $600,000 to pay for her car, rent, wedding and online purchases. 

Additionally, in February of last year, a Pennsylvania church employee and his wife were charged with stealing over $1.2 million from the church. They were said to have used the money for sports events, vacations, and other expenses.

In 2019, a former minister of a megachurch in Texas was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing over $800,000 from First Baptist Church of Houston. 

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