DETROIT — The Rev. Edward Belczak was sentenced Tuesday to 27 months in prison for stealing $573,000 from a Michigan church where he had served as pastor for decades.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow said a prison sentence was necessary to act as a deterrent to others because the Catholic priest was a community leader who was “stealing from the church and people who trusted you most.”
Belczak was a pastor at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Troy, Mich., for almost 30 years.
Tarnow told the priest to “choose your friends wisely and you can do some good in prison.”
Belczak’s reply to the judge after hearing his fate: “It’s part of my destiny.”
Minutes before, Belczak had made a lengthy sermon-like plea to the judge for mercy, citing scripture and also revealing that he had suicidal thoughts because of the public humiliation.
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“I have stained the reputation of being a priest,” said Belczak, who wore a copper-colored shirt to his sentencing and noted an Archdiocese of Detroit official had told him not to wear his white clerical collar to the sentencing. Belczak said he couldn’t even find a tie to wear.
“I ask for the forgiveness of the St. Thomas More parishioners,” Belczak said.
Belczak, 70, plead guilty Sept. 1 to one count of mail fraud in connection with the embezzlement and is paying $573,000 in restitution. Prosecutors had asked for a 37-month prison sentence. Belczak’s supporters had sent dozens of letters to the judge asking for leniency for the charismatic priest, whose popularity had contributed to growing St. Thomas into one of the largest, wealthiest parishes in the archdiocese. Belczak’s attorney had asked for probation or home detention.
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Belczak said he had broken several of the Ten Commandments, and as a leader of a prosperous parish wanted a lifestyle “like the people I served.” Belczak said he used stolen church money to gamble in the stock market, drank alcohol to excess and “began to believe my own hype.”
“I was selfish and stole money that did not belong to me,” said Belczak. “I became a deceiver and a liar.”
“By lying and drinking and stealing and gambling, it took away my peace,” Belczak said. “In trying to be like them, I lost everything.”
Belczak admitted stealing $109,571 from a parish bank account in 2005 to buy a posh Florida condo owned by then parish manager Janice Verschuren, despite having flush personal stock market accounts. The priest opened a secret bank account to pocket $420,000 bequeathed to the parish by a deceased parishioner.
Yet Belczak characterized his travails as part of a “faith-filled journey” filled with signs of spiritual graces. Despite the revelations, friends and parishioners continued to reach out to him, offering up their homes as living quarters and asking him for private counseling even when the archdiocese banned Belczak from performing public church services.
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Belczak said since the financial misdeeds first surfaced in January 2013, he’s had days in which “the guilt and embarrassment is so overwhelming that I honestly believe I would be better off dead.”
He said he struggled with depression, but was undergoing counseling, and the judge ordered that prison officials take steps to guard against suicide.
After the sentencing, Belczak was hugged by several supporters, including two fellow priests. As part of the sentencing, Tarnow also asked that Belczak get additional suicide monitoring in prison. The priest remains free on bond, and a date for him to report for prison has yet to be determined.
“I think the punishment fits the crime,” said Dan Hayden, a St. Thomas More parishioner and usher reached by phone and who was surprised that many other parishioners seemed to excuse the priest’s misdeeds.
“There is a lot of hurt resulting from this crime, a lot of wounded people,” Ned McGrath, an archdiocese spokesman, said in a statement. “We continue to pray for healing at the parish and for all those impacted, including Fr. Belczak.”
The Detroit Archdiocese removed Belczak as St. Thomas More pastor in January 2013 after discovering financial irregularities. Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron later banned him from publicly working as a priest, such as conducting public services in a church, when Belczak was charged with federal crimes in 2014.
After he was removed as parish pastor, Belczak continued to receive 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 was 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 spokesman McGrath. McGrath said internal church proceedings against Belczak now will proceed since the trial is concluded. It’s possible that could result in Belczak’s formal dismissal from the priesthood.
(Montemurri reports for The Detroit Free Press.)