An Okemos priest is facing a court battle over his alleged use of parish money.
Beth LeBlanc/Lansing State Journal
MASON — An ongoing audit of finances at St. Martha Parish in Okemos has pegged missing funds at the Catholic parish at nearly $5 million, officials said Friday during a court hearing.
Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Andrew Stevens said auditors with Plante Moran have combed through “voluminous” discovery in preparing for the case against Rev. Jonathan Wehrle, the suspended priest who faces an embezzlement charge.
“It has taken a multi-member team from Plante Moran several weeks to itemize, categorize and catalog every item of evidence,” Stevens said in a hearing Friday in front of Ingham District Judge Donald Allen Jr.
In May, police said an initial audit of the parish indicated Wehrle, the founding pastor at St. Martha Parish, had used about $1.85 million of parish money on his Williamston home.
His lawyer, Lawrence Nolan, has said Wehrle had family money that could have paid for the 11,345-square-foot home.
“This is the first time I’ve heard the $5 million figure,” Nolan said at Friday’s hearing. “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.
Wehrle was charged in May with one count of embezzlement of $100,000 or more. He is free on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond. Stevens said Friday that he will ask that Wehrle be bound over on a total of five counts of embezzlement of $100,000 or more at the conclusion of the hearing, which is expected to continue Sept. 1 with testimony from current Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea.
The alleged embezzlement was discovered and reported by the Catholic Diocese of Lansing during an audit of the parish. Wehrle was placed on administrative leave May 9.
Wehrle’s 11,345-square-foot home at 1400 Noble Road has a true cash value of at least $1.48 million, according to county records. The 10-acre parcel also has three large barns that have a combined true cash value of about $148,000.
Stevens and Nolan spent much of the morning Friday questioning Bishop Emeritus Carl Mengeling, the 87-year-old former bishop of the Diocese of Lansing, about living arrangements for priests within the diocese.
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.
Mengeling said, during his tenure as bishop from 1996 to 2008, St. Martha Parish had a rectory on parish grounds and he assumed that was where Wehrle lived. He said that living arrangement was the expectation.
“I would not just recommend that, I would demand it,” Mengeling said.
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 has since died, was bishop when St. Martha Parish was founded in 1988.
In speaking to Mengeling about his early years as a parish priest, Nolan asked Mengeling if priests who started parishes enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy.
Mengeling said that’s not the case, that a priest who starts a parish still has obligations and responsibilities noted in church law.
“A priest who starts a parish is not a free agent to do whatever he pleases,” he said.
Contact Reporter Beth LeBlanc at 517-377-1167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LSJBethLeBlanc.
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