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Troy parish gets new pastor to replace priest charged with embezzlement

By Patricia Montemurri, Detroit Free Press
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 30--After more than 19 months, members of St. Thomas More Catholic parish are getting a full-time pastor to formally replace the Rev. Edward Belczak, the Catholic priest charged with embezzling $700,000 from the Troy parish.

This week, Detroit Catholic Archbishop Allen Vigneron said Msgr. Thomas Rice will become pastor of the large Troy parish, which struggled with attendance and donations in the wake of the accusations against Belczak and former parish manager, Janice Verschuren. Rice, who is now pastor of St. Louise de Marillac in Warren, will take the helm of St. Thomas More on Nov. 29.

Rice, 64, has been pastor of St. Louise for 24 years. From 1999 to 2012, he also served as publisher and editor-in-chief of the archdiocese's newspaper, the Michigan Catholic.

Parishioners will be notified of the appointment at services today and Sunday, but parish bulletins already posted Friday online include the announcement.

Known for being a dynamic, engaging, compassionate preacher, Belczak was suspended from his post in January 2013, after a parish audit found evidence of stolen/mishandled parish money. In April, Belczak and Verschuren were charged in U.S. District Court in Detroit with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy.

Vigneron had to wait to name a full-time replacement for Belczak because of the intricacies of Catholic Church law. Belczak refused to voluntarily resign. Belczak's six-year appointment as pastor ended in July and Vigneron chose not to reappoint him, archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath confirmed Friday.

Since Belczak's suspension, Msgr. John Zenz has served as St. Thomas' temporary administrator in addition to duties as pastor of Holy Name parish in Birmingham.

St. Thomas parishioners were divided in their reaction to the accusations against Belczak. After he was first accused, some parishioners started a website and Facebook page to offer testimonials and raise money to defend Belczak.

But the scandal took a toll on the parish. In 2013, for example, the parish's donations to an annual Archdiocese of Detroit fund-raising appeal fell more than $100,000 short of a $291,770 target, according to past parish bulletins. Attendance and donations continue to rebound since the initial fallout, archdiocesan spokesman Ned McGrath said Friday.

No trial date has been set for Belczak and Verschuren, who were each initially charged with five counts of conspiracy and fraud. The indictment said Belczak stole $110,000 from a deceased parishioner's bequest to the parish to help pay for a ritzy Florida condominium he bought from Verschuren and her former husband, and that money also was pilfered from special holiday collections and the church's travel group.

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In July, prosecutors added a sixth count to the indictment, charging the duo with fraud connected to the parish's payments for medical/dental insurance for Verschuren's ex-husband, even though he was ineligible because of the couple's divorce.

Both Belczak, 69, and Verschuren, 67, of Bloomfield Hills, remain free on bond, and Verschuren has twice asked and received permission from the federal court to leave the country to work as a travel/tour guide.

Belczak's attorney, Jerome Sabbota, said Friday that his client is innocent of the charges. Sabbota said Belczak did not know about alleged fraud involving the medical insurance payments.

"He wasn't aware of that. He was the pastor. He wasn't running the place," said Sabbota. Of Belczak's replacement as church pastor, Sabbota said: "It's not what the parishioners want."

Verschuren's attorney, Patricia Maceroni, did not respond to an e-mail or phone call for comment.

Don Liposky, a parishioner for 41 years who considered Belczak a friend as well as his pastor, said the effects of the scandal are apparent at Sunday masses.

"I just see more empty seats," Liposky, a basement remodeling contractor, said Friday. Lipsoky said his initial skepticism of the charges has waned since he read the federal indictment, noting "they don't write those frivolously."

"I still stick to my attitude that even if he's guilty of everything, I'd still have him do my funeral because he's so good at making people comfortable under all circumstances," said Liposky.

Contact Patricia Montemurri: 313-223-4538 or pmontemurri@freepress.com

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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