Michigan Parish Finds Healing After Pastor’s Theft of $5,000,000


[That’s a lot of money for any parish. For what was it intended? Didn’t anyone notice that they weren’t getting their money’s worth? Did the pastor “squeeze” the parishioners for more money to cover the parish’s accounts/supposed expenses that he was embezzling? The parish was/is in denial. The bishop says, “Don’t forget all the good things Father did for you” – to the tune of the $5,000,000 that he stole from the parishioners! His Excellency is also in denial.]

by Anita Carey • ChurchMilitant • July 10, 2017

MASON, Mich. – After their parish priest was accused of stealing $5 million, parishioners of St. Martha Church in Okemos are looking to rebuild their trust in church leadership.

Church Militant spoke with Michael Diebold, director of communications for the diocese of Lansing, about the case. Diebold told Church Militant that Bp. Earl Boyea celebrated the vigil Mass at St. Martha’s just after Fr. Jonathan Wehrle was arrested for embezzlement. The bishop then held a parish meeting with parishioners that lasted for about two hours.

Diebold said the parishioners “showed all the characteristics of grief — sadness, anger and betrayal” but explained Bp. Boyea reminded parishioners not to let what they will learn about the case destroy what they loved about their pastor. “Don’t forget all the good things Father did for you. He baptized your babies, buried your dead and witnessed your marriages,” Diebold said, quoting Bp. Boyea. The bishop said his message was one of “hate the sin but love the sinner.”

Father Wehrle was arrested in May and charged with one count of embezzlement of $100,000 after a routine audit of the parish showed that Wehrle used about $1.85 million on his 11,345 square foot home in Williamston. Prosecutors filed paperwork in June to seize the home if Wehrle is found guilty.

After an initial audit found $140,512 was used on Wehrle’s home in 2016 alone and other receipts showed thefts dating back to 2011, the diocese hired Plante Moran to conduct a forensic audit of the parish’s finances.

Currently, the Jonathan W. Wehrle Trust is listed as the owner of the home, but a 2005 electrical permit for the home listed St. Martha’s Church as the owner. Realtor.com listed the home as last sold in 2000 for $60,000.

In the court proceedings on July 7, Andrew Stevens, assistant Ingham County prosecutor, said, “It has taken a multi-member team from Plante Moran several weeks to itemize, categorize and catalog every item of evidence,” announcing that the new figure is approaching $5 million. The increased amount will possibly lead to new charges against Wehrle.

Retired Bp. Carl Mengeling also testified in the proceedings, stating he assumed Wehrle was living in the rectory at St. Martha, saying “I would not just recommend that; I would demand it.”

Bishop Mengeling was also asked if priests that founded parishes had autonomy. He explained that priests are still bound by canon law, saying, “A priest who starts a parish is not a free agent to do whatever he pleases.” Diebold told Church Militant that the late Bp. Kenneth Povish asked Wehrle to start the parish when the population of East Lansing began to grow in the late 1980s.

Bishop Emeritus Mengeling also explained that diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, a fact confirmed in the letter to the diocese from Bp. Boyea. Priests in the diocese of Lansing typically earn only $35,000 to $40,000 annually and are provided reasonable room and board, usually in a rectory.

Prior to 2013, the diocese of Lansing only audited parishes when a new pastor was installed. The special report noted that the goal of the change “has been to promote an environment that reduces and/or removes temptation … while preventing and detecting possible financial misconduct.”

Diebold also told Church Militant, “This is a community that needs prayers.” He said Bp. Boyea “had a good sense of what they need for healing … Fr. Mike Murray is a good fit for the community.” He relates that he “has heard nothing but good things from the parish about Fr. Mike.”

Due to the ongoing criminal proceedings, Diebold was unable to confirm any details of the audit or if the financial misdealings were going on from the parish’s beginnings.

The trial is set to resume in September and Bp. Boyea is expected to take the stand.

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