Troy priest pleads guilty to mail fraud

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — A priest accused of stealing $573,000 from St. Thomas More Church in Troy pleaded guilty to mail fraud Tuesday in federal court.

“Why am I pleading guilty?” the Rev. Edward Belczak said during his appearance before U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow. “Because I am.”

Wearing his priest collar in court, Belczak, 70, told Tarnow he did not intend to defraud the church but used $109,000 in church funds as a “loan” to buy a condominium in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2005. He said three months later, he returned the funds but later admitted after questioning from the prosecution that he removed the money after the church’s fiscal reporting period had ended.

Belczak was originally charged in 2014 with a five-count indictment accusing him of stealing money from the church from 2004-12. Last week, the government amended charges against Belczak to mail fraud, accusing him of sending incomplete financial reports to the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2010.

According to an indictment, the money Belczak took included most of a $350,000 gift to the church from the family of a dead parishioner and cash donated by churchgoers during special Mother’s Day and Father’s Day collections.

In court Tuesday, Belczak said that after receiving money from the trust of a deceased couple, “the trustee wrote to me that these funds are for your use.”

Other funds Belczak said he received were made out to the church but said his name was written on the envelope.

Belczak said he deposited the money in a private bank account with the name of the church and his name underneath. The prosecution pointed out that he could not deposit the checks without the church’s name on the account, which he admitted. He also said he didn’t report the money to the Archdiocese.

“I decided to do this for me,” he said.

After accepting Belczak’s plea, Tarnow told him it seemed he was trying to justify his actions. The judge told him to reflect on what he did and “how many people you disappointed and hurt. I’m not going to say any more. You have to decide that.”

Belczak faces up to 20 years in prison; however, sentencing guidelines fall between 33 months and 41 months. Tarnow informed Belczak that if he is sentenced to longer than 41 months, he has a right to withdraw his plea. Belczak agreed to forfeiting the condo as part of his $573,000 restitution. He estimated its value at $525,000.

He returns to court for sentencing Dec. 1. His bond was continued.

After the hearing, Belczak’s attorney, Jerome Sabbota, said his client pleaded guilty because he admits responsibility and didn’t want to go any further with court proceedings.

“He didn’t want to bring any further embarrassment to the church,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade responded to Belczak’s case Tuesday with a statement.

“Fraud cases typically involve people using lies to steal money, but in a case involving a member of the clergy, the fraud also includes a serious betrayal of trust,” she wrote. “In this case, Father Belczak abused the sacred trust his parishioners placed in him so that he could enrich himself.”

Belczak was removed from the church in 2013 after an audit raised questions about parish finances. He was the church’s pastor for more than 30 years.

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Associated Press contributed.