Originally created 03/23/98

Stealing prompts security



When money is stolen from a church, more than the money may be lost.

Members may lose confidence in their pastor and one another, said the Rev. Gregory Young, pastor of Thankful Baptist Church.

"Many times you will have ministers accused, and that hurts his relationship with the church," he said. A pastor needs to stay informed about finances, he said. "(But) to keep his reputation, he should stay away from the money."

Because $324,000 was stolen from St. Teresa Catholic Church in 1997, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah is developing stricter standards for bookkeeping, said the Rev. Allan McDonald, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity and dean of the Augusta deanery.

In December, a secretary at St. Teresa and her husband, a maintenance worker there, were indicted on charges of theft, tampering with evidence and racketeering.

The theft, the largest in the history of the diocese, was discovered in August.

Debbie Allison Riexinger and John Michael Riexinger have admitted they used the money for cars, furniture and home improvements as well as trips to Europe and the Northeast, said Bill Fleming, assistant district attorney. Only about $100,000 has been traced.

"It is possible they have spent it all," he said. But investigators aren't satisfied and plan to give the couple a polygraph test before sentencing Friday. The couple is expected to plead guilty based on Mrs. Riexinger's written statement accepting culpability and Mr. Riexinger's verbal statement, he said.

Prosecutors want restitution as part of the sentencing as well as forfeiture of any assets that were illegally gained.

"If they will tell where the money is, we would ask for consideration but not leniency," Mr. Fleming said.

Diocesan auditors were sent after a tip alerted Savannah to the possible mishandling of funds. St. Teresa had also been irregular in sending Savannah monthly financial reports.

During an on-site examination Aug. 6, auditors could not find complete financial records at the parish.

"She had burned them," Mr. Fleming said. The records were reconstructed with assistance from First Union Bank.

Documents showed Mrs. Riexinger had written checks to herself and her husband and deposited the money into her account, he said.

"She said it was her idea," Mr. Fleming said. The thefts occurred between December 1995 and August 1997. The couple was fired Aug. 8.

None of the money has been recovered, although the diocese expects insurance to cover $50,000 of the loss.

"As far as is humanly possible, nothing like this will happen (again) in the future," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah.

The guidelines will ensure that several people will be involved in handling money from the time it is placed in the collection basket until the time it is deposited in a bank, he said.

The couple also was charged with forging the signature of the pastor, the Rev. Walter DiFrancesco, on a credit card application.

The Rev. DiFrancesco retired in March and was succeeded by the Rev. Tom Peyton.

"Ironically, in his 22 years as pastor of St. Teresa's, Father Di oversaw the extraordinary accomplishment of a very substantial building program, all of which was paid for by the time the buildings were completed. He never had to borrow," the bishop said.

On the parish level, Holy Trinity has added safeguards since the St. Teresa theft, the Rev. McDonald said. Through a system of protocols, no individual alone would have control of the money.

"In terms of the collections on Sunday, at least two people would always handle it," he said. A deposit would be written by someone other than a counter, and still another person would sign checks. "Two signatures are required for anything over $1,000."

The church encourages contributors to use checks and envelopes to minimize the amount of cash and to track donations, he said.

The diocese does not require parish audits but some do it on their own, he said. Parishes provide members yearly statements and will give individuals contribution records when requested, the Rev. McDonald said.

The Rev. Otis Moss, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, said his church follows guidelines from the denomination and the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofits.

"We have quadruple checks," he said. For example, Tabernacle usually has four or five counters, who are not related, to count donations.

"A criminal element can enter into any institution. The church is an easy target if they don't have the proper procedures and protocols for dealing with church funds," he said.

Annual audits are required by the United Methodists, said Dr. D.B. Shelnutt Jr., district superintendent of the 92 churches in the 11-county Augusta district.

"The Methodist church is very organized about the money situation," he said. "We bend over backward to prevent misappropriation of funds."

The district offers workshops on audits, the treasury and W-2s for financial secretaries every two or three years, he said.

Secretaries keep the records, but the church treasurer signs checks. Treasurers are appointed and bonded, he said.

Some churches hire business managers.

Anyone in the church can ask how much was collected and how it was disbursed, although the amount of someone's donations would not be revealed, Dr. Shelnut said. "Salaries of clergy and staff are published."

The Rev. Donald Fishburne, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, said his church wants to protect people from temptation and protect the staff and other individuals from accusations. The church has a tight budget and tight controls.

But honesty is less an issue than good stewardship, he said. "We are careful stewards of other people's money which is given to the church in Christ's name."

BYLINE1:By Virginia Norton

BYLINE2:Staff Writer

When money is stolen from a church, more than the money may be lost.

Members may lose confidence in their pastor and one another, said the Rev. Gregory Young, pastor of Thankful Baptist Church.

"Many times you will have ministers accused, and that hurts his relationship with the church," he said. A pastor needs to stay informed about finances, he said. "(But) to keep his reputation, he should stay away from the money."

Because $324,000 was stolen from St. Teresa Catholic Church in 1997, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah is developing stricter standards for bookkeeping, said the Rev. Allan McDonald, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity and dean of the Augusta deanery.

In December, a secretary at St. Teresa and her husband, a maintenance worker there, were indicted on charges of theft, tampering with evidence and racketeering.

The theft, the largest in the history of the diocese, was discovered in August.

Debbie Allison Riexinger and John Michael Riexinger have admitted they used the money for cars, furniture and home improvements as well as trips to Europe and the Northeast, said Bill Fleming, assistant district attorney. Only about $100,000 has been traced.

"It is possible they have spent it all," he said. But investigators aren't satisfied and plan to give the couple a polygraph test before sentencing Friday. The couple is expected to plead guilty based on Mrs. Riexinger's written statement accepting culpability and Mr. Riexinger's verbal statement, he said.

Prosecutors want restitution as part of the sentencing as well as forfeiture of any assets that were illegally gained.

"If they will tell where the money is, we would ask for consideration but not leniency," Mr. Fleming said.

Diocesan auditors were sent after a tip alerted Savannah to the possible mishandling of funds. St. Teresa had also been irregular in sending Savannah monthly financial reports.

During an on-site examination Aug. 6, auditors could not find complete financial records at the parish.

"She had burned them," Mr. Fleming said. The records were reconstructed with assistance from First Union Bank.

Documents showed Mrs. Riexinger had written checks to herself and her husband and deposited the money into her account, he said.

"She said it was her idea," Mr. Fleming said. The thefts occurred between December 1995 and August 1997. The couple was fired Aug. 8.

None of the money has been recovered, although the diocese expects insurance to cover $50,000 of the loss.

"As far as is humanly possible, nothing like this will happen (again) in the future," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah.

The guidelines will ensure that several people will be involved in handling money from the time it is placed in the collection basket until the time it is deposited in a bank, he said.

The couple also was charged with forging the signature of the pastor, the Rev. Walter DiFrancesco, on a credit card application.

The Rev. DiFrancesco retired in March and was succeeded by the Rev. Tom Peyton.

"Ironically, in his 22 years as pastor of St. Teresa's, Father Di oversaw the extraordinary accomplishment of a very substantial building program, all of which was paid for by the time the buildings were completed. He never had to borrow," the bishop said.

On the parish level, Holy Trinity has added safeguards since the St. Teresa theft, the Rev. McDonald said. Through a system of protocols, no individual alone would have control of the money.

"In terms of the collections on Sunday, at least two people would always handle it," he said. A deposit would be written by someone other than a counter, and still another person would sign checks. "Two signatures are required for anything over $1,000."

The church encourages contributors to use checks and envelopes to minimize the amount of cash and to track donations, he said.

The diocese does not require parish audits but some do it on their own, he said. Parishes provide members yearly statements and will give individuals contribution records when requested, the Rev. McDonald said.

The Rev. Otis Moss, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, said his church follows guidelines from the denomination and the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofits.

"We have quadruple checks," he said. For example, Tabernacle usually has four or five counters, who are not related, to count donations.

"A criminal element can enter into any institution. The church is an easy target if they don't have the proper procedures and protocols for dealing with church funds," he said.

Annual audits are required by the United Methodists, said Dr. D.B. Shelnutt Jr., district superintendent of the 92 churches in the 11-county Augusta district.

"The Methodist church is very organized about the money situation," he said. "We bend over backward to prevent misappropriation of funds."

The district offers workshops on audits, the treasury and W-2s for financial secretaries every two or three years, he said.

Secretaries keep the records, but the church treasurer signs checks. Treasurers are appointed and bonded, he said.

Some churches hire business managers.

Anyone in the church can ask how much was collected and how it was disbursed, although the amount of someone's donations would not be revealed, Dr. Shelnut said. "Salaries of clergy and staff are published."

The Rev. Donald Fishburne, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, said his church wants to protect people from temptation and protect the staff and other individuals from accusations. The church has a tight budget and tight controls.

But honesty is less an issue than good stewardship, he said. "We are careful stewards of other people's money which is given to the church in Christ's name."