Gesu Church still reeling after theft

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Rebecca Piekarski, 37, of Cudahy was dismissed from her bookkeeping duties at the church in March after parish officials discovered she had embezzled $518,469 from parish accounts between mid-2001 and January 2003. She is facing two felony charges, one for theft and one for fraud. If convicted, she could face up to 25 years in prison, fines totaling as much as $20,000, or both.

Piekarski was given administrative responsibility in June 2001 until the church could fill a vacant position. It granted her additional access to the church’s financial controls, allowing her to take cash from weekly deposits and write unauthorized checks that she allegedly cashed or deposited into her bank accounts.

According to the criminal complaint, Piekarski wrote 154 checks to herself using the church’s money during the year-and-a-half span, recording the deductions as payments for parish items. In total, she stole $201,549.18.

Piekarski also allegedly embezzled from parishioner collection funds in excess of $300,000.

The complaint indicates Piekarski used the stolen funds for gambling at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo Casino. Bank records show Piekarski frequented the casino’s ATM machines, making large and consistent withdrawals during the period in which the thefts took place.

Gesu pastor the Rev. Peter Etzel said that at the time of the thefts, the parish did notice a decline in income. They had attributed the decrease to three particular external factors: the lax economy, sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church that were responsible for a nationwide decline in parishioner contributions and the deconstruction of Wisconsin Avenue, which made it difficult for some to attend Mass.

“Combined with changes in parish administration and the climate of trust in which our parish operates, these circumstances created an environment in which the drop in funds did not immediately raise suspicion,” Etzel said. “Also, our annual certified audits had not revealed problems with our financial records.”

Upon discovery of the thefts, the parish secured its records for investigation and engaged the services of legal counsel and accounting experts to rectify the situation. Gesu has also hired a new auditing firm, McGladrey & Pullen, to advise them on bookkeeping protocol and financial controls. The church is in the process of looking for a new bookkeeper.

Etzel said he hopes the reviews and new measures will protect against similar incidents in the future.

“We are confident the legal and practical steps we have undertaken to correct the unforeseen failings of our past systems, and our renewed vigilance, will assure sound, professional financial management at Gesu Parish,” he said.

In an effort to recover the stolen funds, Etzel said Gesu has filed an initial claim of $154,000 on its insurance policy and so far has received $150,000.

“The process of identifying actual losses and obtaining documentation has been tedious and time-consuming but is nearing completion,” he said. “When that process is complete we intend to file claims for the balance of the amount of our loss, and we hope to recover much of the stolen money.”

Etzel said many have been affected by the theft.

Sophomore Fernando Orozco was shocked someone would consider stealing from the Church.

“I was just surprised how that could go unnoticed,” he said. “It’s just sad that people would steal from the Church.”

Etzel will continue to pray for the well-being of Piekarski and her family, as well as parishioners, he said.

“I can understand any feelings of anger and frustration,” he said. “And as (their) pastor I take full responsibility for rectifying the many problems these thefts have caused and for ensuring, to the best of my ability, that solid financial controls remain in place.”

Piekarski will make her initial court appearance on Nov. 10.

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