While not all Catholic priests decide to take a vow of poverty when they’re ordained, a priest with a 10-acre estate in Williamston that includes six bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, 10 fireplaces, three barns, an indoor swimming pool, and stained-glass windows seems pretty suspicious. And that’s just one of his properties. The priest in question has been maintaining (although allegedly not paying taxes on or properly insuring) other properties for his personal use – all allegedly funded by money that was intended for his parish.
Reverend Jonathan Wehrle, who founded St. Martha Church in Okemos, Michigan, has recently been accused of embezzling more than $5 million from his church, and prosecutors are pointing to his vast estate as evidence of the theft. Wehrle allegedly spent $45,000 on an indoor swimming pool, $55,000 on stained-glass windows, and more than $134,000 on landscaping. According to a statement from the police, bills for the construction and landscaping did on the property match checks written from St. Martha.
Lawrence Nolan, the attorney representing Wehrle in the lawsuit, claimed the priest had an agreement with a bishop that allowed Wehrle to use parish money to fund his private residence. Unfortunately, that bishop is no longer living.
But Andrew Stevens, the assistant prosecutor for Princeton Excess and Surplus Lines Insurance Corporation, which insures the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, tells a different story. According to Stevens, Wehrle had maintained almost complete control over the church and its funds since founding it in 1988.
Wehrle is charged with six counts of embezzling at least $100,000 from the church, money he allegedly spent on himself. Princeton Excess has also filed another lawsuit against Wehrle for allegedly failing to pay his property taxes and allowing his homeowner’s insurance to lapse.
Princeton Excess asked the court to place Wehrle’s estate into receivership for the duration of the trial and the judge agreed to do so. Princeton Excess says the receivership is to protect assets to cover the millions that St. Martha allegedly lost. The insurance company says it has already paid out about $2.5 million to the diocese so far, but it may well have to pay more before all the church’s losses are discovered.
An attorney for the plaintiffs said that the receivership is to make sure the property is not damaged or wasted while they all wait for the trial to make its way through the court system – which could take years if the losing side decides to appeal. Placing the estate into receivership ensures that, in the meantime, all the taxes on the property are paid up and that it is properly insured and maintained.
A spokesman for the diocese released a statement assuring the public that any funds that are recovered as a result of the lawsuit will be going straight to the parish since the money that was allegedly stolen was supposed to have gone to the parish in the first place.
The trial is currently scheduled for later this month, but one of the assistant prosecutors said in a statement that it is more likely that the case will not be tried until the summer.
Our lawyers have handled a number of fraud and embezzlement matters both defending and prosecuting such cases and can assist you if you believe that you have such a case.
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