Former parish bookkeeper charged for defrauding 2 churches of $250K

A 47-year old woman has been charged for defrauding two churches on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore of more than $250,000 over a 12-year period, according to the RCMP/Halifax Regional Police financial crime unit.

The activity happened in the former parish of St. Anselm’s Roman Catholic Church in West Chezzetcook, and continued in the newly established parish of Saint John of the Cross in East Chezzetcook, according to a March 21 letter to parishioners.

The East Chezzetcook woman was charged with three counts of fraud over $5,000, three counts of possession of property obtained by crime, identity fraud and falsification of books and documents, among other charges.

A police investigation determined that the fraud was being committed by the bookkeeper between July 2009 and January 2020.

Continuous investigations

“The woman used her position as the parish’s bookkeeper to access funds from the parish’s bank accounts for personal use and established recurring payments made to various establishments offering products and services within Nova Scotia,” police say in the news release.

Police first received a complaint from the public regarding financial irregularities at a parish in West Chezzetcook in July 2019.

In a letter sent to parishioners on Monday, Father Vincent Onyekelu, the current priest of Saint John of the Cross Parish, said the employee was terminated with cause in December 2020.

Police said the Archdiocese of Halifax/Yarmouth conducted an internal investigation and provided their findings to police in December 2020.

Police began investigating based on the outcomes of the independent audit, which examined parish finances over a period of 14 years.

“The alleged incidents involved numerous small transactions with an elaborate process to cover-up each transaction,” Onyekelu wrote.

St. Anselm’s abruptly closed

Onyekelu said in his letter to parishioners the decision to close St. Anselm’s in November 2018 was a result of “numerous factors,” including a $875,000 debt to the archdiocese and necessary repairs ranging from $180,000 to $410,000.

“The subsequent discovery of theft and fraud, even though it was quite substantial, does not impact the decision to close the church. The church will remain closed,” he said.

In a statement emailed on Friday, Archbishop Dunn said “he and his staff are providing pastoral support to the pastor, current staff, and the parish community as this sad news becomes known in the small, tight knit communities along the
Eastern Shore. He asks the faithful to pray for all involved in this unfortunate situation.”

The St. Anselm Preservation Society, a non-profit organization, said in a statement it was co-operating with the criminal investigation.

“Our society efforts have always been directed to obtaining the complete truth and transparency of the circumstances surrounding our church closure,” it said in an email.

Police continue to gather information and evidence. The accused will appear in provincial court in Dartmouth on May 3.

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