Priest who stole money gets 27 months in prison

DETROIT (AP) -- A Roman Catholic priest who said he "stained" his profession by embezzling more than $500,000 was sentenced Tuesday to 27 months in prison.

   U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow rejected a light sentence sought by the Rev. Ed Belczak, but the punishment was shorter than the three years in prison recommended by prosecutors.

   The government said Belczak "took what he pleased" from St. Thomas More Church in Troy to buy a Florida condominium from his parish manager and invest in stocks. Much of the $573,000 came from a deceased parishioner's bequest to the church, which Belczak had led for nearly 30 years.

   "Father Belczak's crime was not an isolated incident or a momentary lapse of judgment, but an orchestrated scheme perpetrated over time to defraud the people he claimed to serve," U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said.

   Belczak and his supporters had hoped they could persuade the judge to keep him out of prison, saying his crime shouldn't overshadow years of good work. Defense attorney Jerome Sabbota said running the large, prosperous parish was stressful.

   "I have stained the reputation of being a priest," Belczak said in court.

   He said he wanted a lifestyle "like the people I served," adding that he gambled on the stock market, drank alcohol excessively and "began to believe my own hype."

   Belczak was removed from St. Thomas More in 2013 after an audit raised questions about finances.

   Church manager Janice Verschuren was charged with fraud and conspiracy. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in October, admitting she kept her divorced husband on the church's health insurance at a cost of $26,000. She will be sentenced Jan. 21.

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