NEWS STORY: Lutheran synod reports $740,000 in endowment money missing

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(RNS)-In the wake of embezzlements of large sums of money reported recently in other major churches, the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America announced Thursday (May 30) that $740,000 is missing from its endowment funds.

Church officials have asked Connecticut authorities to investigate what happened to the money that had been in the charge of the church's treasurer, George A. Patrick of Cheshire, Conn.

No direct accusation of embezzlement has been leveled at Patrick, said Bradford E. Cook, a Manchester, N. H., lawyer who represents the church. "We have been very careful to go to the authorities with facts and not accusations,"Cook said.

Other major churches have been victims of financial wrongdoing lately. In January, former Episcopal Church treasurer Ellen F. Cooke pleaded guilty in federal court in Newark, N.J., to embezzling more than $1.5 million in church funds over a four-year period. Her sentencing is currently set for June 10.

In December, the former comptroller of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries was arraigned in the New York State Supreme Court on charges that he stole nearly $400,000. On March 14, Jones received a six-month sentence but was released on time served with the condition that he make restitution when possible.

In early May, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn announced at a press conference that Vincenza Bologna, manager of its lay pensions office, had diverted $1.1 million to her personal account. The charges are under investigation.

Patrick, who in December resigned his post as treasurer of the ELCA's New England Synod, did not respond to telephone calls to his home and office.

The missing money was discovered in an independent audit of church funds, Cook said. He said the auditor, Donna Paris of Middlebury, Conn., found checks totaling $740,000 written to an entity called"First Cheshire Investment Associates."When she tried to verify the checks she could not find any evidence that First Cheshire Investments existed, Cook said.

Cook said he and Paris, on instructions from Bishop Robert L. Isaksen, who heads the New England Synod, took their findings to Connecticut Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey, who heads criminal investigations.

Isaksen, in a May 24 letter to church leaders, said that he and other church officials"are continuing to cooperate fully in these investigations, which will continue until the status and location of all funds is explained fully and all appropriate action has been taken to make the financial status of the Synod as secure as possible." The synod, based in Worcester, Mass., is one of 65 regional jurisdictions of the 5.2 million-member church, the major Lutheran denomination. It consists of about 77,000 members in 200 congregations in the six New England states and part of New York.

The Rev. John Stadtlander, pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford, Conn., was one of the first to raise concerns about the"imprecision"of the synod's financial reports. That was a year ago, at the synod's annual assembly.

But Stadtlander and others who were present at the assembly said his concerns were seen as an attack on Patrick, who received a standing ovation from the delegates as a vote of their confidence."I had raised the questions and that was the response that came forth,"Stadtlander said in an interview."I objected to the lack of reporting and precise procedures. I didn't have any hard evidence of wrongdoing and we were not at all suspicious of that,"Stadlander said."I just felt we were not on sound financial grounds." He said he only wanted fuller disclosure. The synod has a $1.8 million budget, which includes contributions from member churches and income from endowment investments.

Stadtlander said he could not get an answer on how much money was in the endowment fund. Later in 1995 Stadtlander's congregation and at least one other began withholding their contributions to the synod until the financial questions were clarified."We have a moral responsibility to the people of our church when we transmit their money to see that it was being put to appropriate use,"he said.

A statement from the synod's office said that the synod's"handling of finances have been under review in the last year by a special task force appointed by the bishop and the 20 member synod council." It said the treasurer's office was moved from Cheshire to Worcester early in May."The relocation conformed to new financial controls recommended by the task force and instituted by the synod council,"the statement said.

Isaksen has been bishop of the New England Synod since its formation following the 1988 merger of three Lutheran denominations into the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He has had two four-year terms and is standing for reelection to a six-year term at the synod's annual assembly scheduled June 6 to 8 in Sturbridge, Mass. Isaksen has no announced opponent.

The role of bishop in the church is that of an elected, administrative official and not a lifelong liturgical position as in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox churches.