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Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Father Edward Belczak Embezzlement Case

     Reverend Edward Belczak, the pastor of the 2,500-member St. Thomas More Catholic Church in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, lived extremely well for a priest who made less than $30,000 a year. In 2005, the well-known and popular 60-year-old man of the cloth purchased, with a $109,578 down payment, a luxury condo in Palm Beach, Florida from his longtime church administrator, Janice Verschuren.

     In late 2012, an internal audit of Reverend Belczak's church commissioned by the Archdiocese of Detroit, led the auditors to suspect that the priest, during the period 2004 to 2012, embezzled at least $429,000 from the parish. The archdiocese reported the audit results to the local police who turned the case over to the FBI.

     Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, in January 2013, suspended Reverend Belczak. Church administrator Verschuren, suspected of helping the pastor divert church money, resigned.

     Father Belczak's suspension did not sideline him altogether. With advanced permission from the archdiocese, he was allowed to conduct church services at other parishes throughout the Detroit area. He also continued to draw his salary.

     On April 23, 2014, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson announced that a federal grand jury sitting in Detroit had indicted Reverend Belczak and Janice Verschuren of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. According to the indictment, Belczal had purchased the Palm Beach condo with funds he had diverted from a parish bank account.

     Another act of theft alleged in the grand jury true bill involved the unlawful taking of $420,204, money bequeathed to the church following the death of a parishioner. That money, according to FBI investigators, had ended up in a secret money-market account in Belczak's name. Forensic accountants with the FBI reported that the 69-year-old priest and his 67-year-old former manager diverted more than $700,000 of the church's money, then filed false financial reports to the archdiocese in Detroit in an attempt to cover the embezzlements. If convicted as charged, the defendants faced up to twenty years in prison.

     Shortly after the indictments came down, Father Belczak's attorney, Jerome Sabbota, in speaking to reporters said, "My client is innocent. He is not happy. Nobody who gets indicted is happy. He looks forward to doing what he has to do."

     Following the priest's suspension in January 2013, many of his parishioners expressed their belief in his innocence. One of his supporters created a website called, "Friends of Father B." The internet site featured photographs of a smiling Father Belczak conducting a variety of church related activities. Supporters were also encouraged to write letters of support to Archbishop Vigneron and even to Pope Francis. (The pope had his own problems with Vatican related embezzlements involving staggering sums of money.) Believers in Father Belczak were asked to donate money to his legal defense fund.

     The "Father B" website also included a statement from the accused priest written after his suspension from St. Thomas More Church. Father Belczak wrote: "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. I sense his presence every day 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 what is not yet revealed to the senses."

     Faith is good I guess, but in the world of criminal justice, a good lawyer is even better. Imagine, if you will, a teenager confessing to Father Belczak that he had shoplifted something from Walmart. There is petty theft and there is grand theft. If FBI agents and the federal prosecutor were right about Father Belczak, he was not a petty thief, and the parishioners who supported him were victims of his crimes.

     As it turned out, Father Belczak was a big time thief. In September 2015, Father Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with stealing $573,000 from his church. As part of the plea deal, the priest agreed to forfeit the plush Florida condo he had purchased with parish money. The proceeds from the sale of the Palm Beach condo would go back to the parish in the form of restitution.  When asked why he had pleaded guilty, the priest replied, "Because I am."

     After the guilty plea, fifty parishioners and a handful of priests wrote letters to the federal district judge asking for a lenient sentence in the Belczak case.

     On January 1, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Tarnow sentenced Father Belczak to 27 months in prison. In speaking to the court, Father Belczak said, "I have stained the reputation of being a priest. I ask for the forgiveness of St. Thomas More parishioners."

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