Audit: Okemos priest embezzlement grows to $5.4M
Okemos — An investigation of a Catholic priest had focused on a $3 million mansion he built in 2007, but new records show the alleged pilfering began long before then.
The purported embezzlement started shortly after the Rev. Jon Wehrle founded St. Martha Church in 1988 and continued for 26 years, according to an audit by Plante Moran. In all, the priest is accused of taking $5.4 million from the church from 1991 to 2017, the audit shows.
Wehrle was charged with six counts of embezzlement last year and forced to resign as pastor of St. Martha. He is scheduled to be tried June 11 in Ingham County Circuit Court.
Church members, already shocked by earlier accounts of the alleged chicanery, are beginning to wonder whether they knew the priest at all.
“It’s shocking. I had no idea,” said former member Kathy Flynn.
Wehrle, 67, who used to make $42,000 a year, originally was accused of embezzling to pay for his 11,300-square-foot home, which has eight bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a wine cellar, wood-paneled elevator and indoor swimming pool.
But the money also was spent on an earlier, 3,600-square-foot home on 25 acres, according to the audit, which was described in a recent lawsuit by the Catholic Diocese of Lansing’s insurance company.
Wehrle’s sons Kevin and Christopher received $48,000 for tuition, medical bills and moving costs from 1992 to 2017, according to the audit. His daughter-in-law, Sherry Wehrle, received $170,000 for housecleaning of the priest’s homes from 2010 to 2017.
Wehrle was a foster parent who adopted three boys.
He also allegedly used church money for bills, taxes, insurance and farming expenses, according to the audit.
St. Martha has been reimbursed $2.5 million so far, according to the Catholic Diocese of Lansing.
Wehrle, 67, and his attorneys didn’t respond to emails or phone calls asking for comment.
Some church members continued to stand by the priest.
Retiree Ted Beekman, one of the founding members of the church, said he wanted to wait until the trial is over before passing judgment on his friend and former pastor.
“A lot has been said, but you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Beekman said.
Princeton Excess & Surplus Lines Insurance filed a lawsuit last month seeking to prevent Wehrle from selling or transferring his Okemos home.
It also asked a judge to place the home in receivership so it could be maintained.
Wehrle, whose financial accounts have been seized by authorities, had told the Catholic Diocese of Lansing he couldn’t afford to pay taxes, insurance or for maintenance of the property, according to the lawsuit.
Farm Bureau Insurance notified Wehrle in January it wouldn’t renew his homeowners’ insurance because he was a “poor moral risk,” the lawsuit said.
An Ingham County Circuit judge appointed a receiver last month who will ensure that taxes are paid and insurance procured. Princeton Excess will pay those expenses.
Wehrle is being allowed to live in the home as he awaits trial.
As for the audit by Plante Moran, it showed Wehrle allegedly began stealing money in 1991, three years after he arrived in Okemos to start St. Martha.
While the church was being built, the diocese allowed Wehrle to use church money to pay the mortgage of a 6,000-square-foot home he was building, according to an investigation by the Michigan State Police. When the church was done, he was supposed to sell the home and move into the rectory.
But Wehrle never moved into the rectory. Instead, after selling the home in 1990, he bought the 3,600-square-foot home.
He has said he had an agreement with then-Bishop Ken Povish to continue living in private homes at church expense. But three subsequent bishops and Povish’s chief of state denied such an agreement existed, according to an investigative report by the state police. Povish died in 2003.
Wehrle was proud of his prowess as a builder, having constructed six homes before arriving in Okemos. The size of the homes grew dramatically toward the end, culminating in the $3 million mansion.
The audit accuses Wehrle of spending $3 million of church money on his homes and property, including $1.5 million on the mansion.
About $451,000 was spent on mortgage payments from 1995 to 2012, the audit showed. Another $134,000 went for landscaping expenses from 1995 to 2016.