Catholic priest Edward Belczak pleaded guilty Tuesday to mail fraud in connection with stealing $573,000 from St. Thomas More church in Troy, the prosperous parish he led as pastor for nearly 30 years.
Belczak agreed to forfeit a plush Florida condo he bought with parish money and pay $573,000 in restitution. His sentencing will be Dec. 1; the sentencing guidelines call for him spending 33 to 41 months in prison.
Belczak wore his priestly collar during the hearing before U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow. He pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, admitting that church financial records he mailed to the Archdiocese of Detroit illegally concealed monies intended for the parish.
Belczak initially said he thought some donations to the parish were intended for him, but his comments did not seem to sit well with Judge Tarnow.
"As a hint, between now and the time of sentencing, you better reflect on what you did because I'm hearing a lot of justification," said Tarnow, warning Belczak to "reflect on how many people you disappointed and hurt."
Belczak's plea came more than 2 1/2 years after Archdiocese of Detroit officials removed him as pastor of St. Thomas More when an audit raised evidence of financial irregularities involving several hundred thousand dollars.
“I always thought the money was for me,” Belczak said of $420,000 bequeathed to the parish in 2006 by a widow’s trust after Belczak officiated at her funeral.
“I was too trusting. I was too naïve,” Belczak said, initially contending the bequest was for him, not the needs of St. Thomas More.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Carlson hammered back at Belczak’s explanation.
Belczak acknowledged that he opened a private account under the name of "St. Thomas More c/o Edward Belczak" to deposit the bequest money.
If Belczak hadn't opened the private account, Carlson said, “you couldn’t have cashed the check…because it was made payable to the church?”
“”Yes, Ma’am,” Belczak answered.
When Carlson asked him if he reported these donations to Catholic church officials, Belczak admitted "No, I didn't."
Tarnow told Belczak his guilty plea means the priest “will always have the title of felon as part of your history.”
When Tarnow asked Belczak why he was pleading guilty, Belczak replied “Because I am.”
Belczak was originally charged with six counts related to embezzlement and fraud. A mail fraud conviction could result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years and/or $250,000 fine. But if Tarnow decides to impose a sentence exceeding the guideline maximum of 41 months, Belczak may withdraw his guilty plea, Tarnow said.
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Belczak had served as pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic church from 1984 until he was removed in January 2013.
Once Belczak was indicted in April 2014, the Detroit Archdiocese forbade him from working as a priest, dressing in the clerical collar of a priest or identifying himself as a priest.
In court, Belczak acknowledged that he is still receiving a $30,000 annual salary from the Detroit archdiocese. That's required under Catholic church law because Belczak has not undergone an internal Catholic church trial while the criminal case is underway. Detroit archdiocese priests average a salary of about $30,000, plus health care.
The archdiocese has not paid for Belczak's legal fees, said Detroit archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath. Once the federal proceedings are completed, Belczak is likely to face an internal Catholic church trial that could result in his formal dismissal from the priesthood.
In speaking before Tarnow, Belczak acknowledged he's facing an internal church trial and that his Catholic canon lawyer will argue that Belczak never intended to defraud the church.
McGrath said Belczak's case "is a sad and tragic anomaly" which has been difficult for parishioners.
“In no way should this sully the legacy of the dedicated and selfless pastoral care given by our archdiocesan priests, and most especially, those in leadership positions,” said McGrath.
With his guilty plea, Belczak admitted that he drew a check for $109,570 from the St. Thomas More bank account in 2005 to help buy a $500,000 Florida condo. .The government said another parishioner gave $10,000 annually to the parish from 2008 to 2011 “for the needs of the church” and Belczak also deposited that for his own personal use and benefit.
Belczak purchased the Florida condo, which he must now forfeit, from Janice Verschuren, who worked as St. Thomas More’s parish manager. She also was charged with theft from the church,and her case is still pending.
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