Alleged embezzlement by Lansing priest approaches $5 million

Fr. Jonathan Wehrle, left, and his attorney, Lawrence Nolan, consult during a July 7 hearing. (Courtesy of Lansing State Journal)
Fr. Jonathan Wehrle, left, and his attorney, Lawrence Nolan, consult during a July 7 hearing. (Courtesy of Lansing State Journal)

by Dan Morris-Young

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A continuing audit of financial records of St. Martha Parish in Okemos, Michigan, has increased the amount potentially embezzled from parish funds from $1.8 million to nearly $5 million it was revealed at a July 7 hearing at Ingham County District Court in Mason, Michigan.

The founding pastor, Fr. Jonathan Wehrle, 66, was arrested and charged with embezzlement on the 39th anniversary of his ordination in May, reported the Lansing State Journal.

Wehrle was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond, and was placed on administrative leave by the Lansing Diocese May 9, according to a statement by the diocese.

The missing funds were detected during a routine diocesan audit of the parish.

Auditors earlier reportedly had said they believed more than $1.8 million of parish funds were invested in the pastor's personal residence in Williamston, a bedroom community known for its antique and specialty stores.

During the July 7 hearing, assistant prosecuting attorney Andrew Stevens said, "It has taken a multi-member team from Plante Moran (accounting firm) several weeks to itemize, categorize and catalog every item of evidence," wrote the Journal's Beth LeBlanc.

Leblanc also reported that local prosecutors June 26 filed precautionary "paperwork to seize" Wehrle's 11,345-square-foot home as well as a nearby vacant parcel as potential recompense to the parish if the priest is found guilty.

Lawrence Nolan, Wehrle's attorney, has stated that independent family wealth could have paid for the priest's residence, which sits on 10 acres and is valued at about $1.5 million.

During the July 7 hearing, wrote LeBlanc, Nolan said, "This is the first time I've heard the $5 million figure. That's a new high water mark."

"Nolan said since Wehrle's accounts were frozen by state police, he and his mother have begun receiving charitable food deliveries from organizations such as Meals on Wheels," added LeBlanc.

The 87-year-old bishop-emeritus of Lansing, Carl Mengeling, was questioned extensively during the morning of last Friday's hearing.

"Mengeling said priests ideally live in a rectory on parish grounds. He said any large expenditures such as an addition to the parish church, school or rectory would need prior approval from a bishop," wrote LeBlanc.

During his tenure as bishop from 1996 to 2008, St. Martha Parish had a rectory on campus and he assumed that was where Wehrle lived, Mengeling testified.

The bishop said that was the understood expectation. According to LeBlanc, Mengeling added, "I would not just recommend that, I would demand it."

Upon questioning from Nolan, Mengeling said he was unaware of any existing agreement between Wehrle and former Bishop Kenneth Povish regarding use of a rectory. Povish, who died in 2003, was bishop when St. Martha Parish was founded in 1988.

According to records obtained by the State Journal, the Williamston home is titled to the Jonathan W. Wehrle Trust, but in 2005 an electrical permit for the house listed St. Martha Parish as owner.

"Police have said check stubs and invoices indicate funds from the church were used to pay for work and materials at the home," wrote LeBlanc.

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