Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Troy, Michigan pastor under embezzlement investigation bought $500,000 Florida condo from church manager


The charismatic Catholic pastor removed last week from his parish in Troy amid an embezzlement investigation bought a half-million-dollar condo in Florida from his longtime church administrator, the Free Press has learned.
Adding another layer to the case that has shocked and captivated metro Detroit Catholics, the St. Thomas More administrator, Janice Verschuren, is no longer employed by the parish, according to the Archdiocese of Detroit.
The church's parish council was told on Monday about the departure of Verschuren, who has worked at the parish since 1994, archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said Tuesday.
In March 2005, Rev. Edward Belczak, the pastor at the church, purchased the property in Wellington, Fla., for $500,000 from Verschuren, the church's administrator and facilities manager, and her then-husband, Michael Verschuren, according to public records in Palm Beach County. In 2011, Belczak, 67, transferred the property to a trust in his name, according to documents reviewed by the Free Press.
Neither Belczak nor the Verschurens could be reached for comment Tuesday. Oakland County Circuit Court records show Janice Verschuren and Michael Verschuren were divorced in 2007. McGrath said that the archdiocese "does not oversee a priest's personal finances ... (and) does not govern what a priest purchases or is allowed to purchase, in terms of real estate."
Troy police and the archdiocese are investigating whether Belczak embezzled or mismanaged $429,000. According to the archdiocese, investigators are trying to figure out whether Belczak padded his salary, paid a ghost employee $240,000 over the last six years and mishandled collections for Mother's Day and Father's Day, among other allegations.
The Florida condo -- with four bedrooms and three bathrooms -- is part of the Palm Beach Polo & Country Club, billed on its website as "a landmark of luxury living and world-class sporting in the heart of America's equestrian capital." The property is 3,150 square feet, according to real estate websites. It was purchased by Janice and Michael Verschuren in 1988 for $450,000; the pastor took out a $400,000 mortgage on the same day he purchased it in 2005.
Today, the condo is worth about $370,000, according to the Property Appraiser's Office of Palm Beach County.
In addition to paying the mortgage, as the owner, Belczak would have to pay taxes that ranged from about $8,500 to $10,500 a year over the last six years, according to records with the Palm Beach County Constitutional Tax Collector. Last year, the tax bill for the condo was $8,460.73. Its highest rate since Belczak bought it was $10,525.46, in 2008.
A real estate transaction between a Catholic pastor and his parish manager does raises questions, experts said.
"You run into problems when you're in a business relationship with employees," said Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University who writes about Catholic issues. "That raises all sorts of conflicts of interest and other problems. So it raises eyebrows."
It is unclear how Belczak paid for the home. In metro Detroit, priests earn about $27,500 to the mid-$30,000 range, depending on years of service.
"Father Belczak's salary was within this range and appropriate," McGrath said. He said archdiocese officials have seen the Florida property records.

Catholics shocked

Troy Police Sgt. Andy Breidenich said the investigation into the embezzlement allegations at St. Thomas More will take at least a month. "It takes time, especially fraud investigations with financial documents."
The removal of Belczak has shocked many in metro Detroit who knew him as a charismatic man who grew the parish into one of the biggest Catholic churches in Oakland County. He was pastor there for 30 years before his removal last week.
The investigation has shined a spotlight on the financial relationship between parishioners and their pastors. Given that the priest was popular, many were eager to help the church, parishioners have said.
McGrath said, "The archdiocese doesn't govern whether a parishioner can give a gift to a priest. Nor, in practicality, can it know about every gift offered to a priest.
Margie Printz, the owner of American Currency Exchange, said she has dealt with Belczak and Janice Verschuren, selling them foreign currency for their trips abroad with the St. Thomas More Travel Group.
The travel group, which organized church trips, is part of the embezzlement investigation, the archdiocese said. Investigators are looking into whether Belczak may have accepted $25,000 in residual commission checks to the travel group that should have been deposited or recorded in parish accounts.
But Printz said, "I have dealt with both Father Belczak and Janice, and cannot believe these accusations. I am in total shock -- they have both been nothing but kind, honest and professional in our dealings. I am just hoping this is some terrible mistake."

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