TABOR — A former church worker has pleaded guilty to embezzling $324,000 from two Catholic parishes in Tabor and Lesterville.
Steven Bares appeared in federal court on Tuesday where he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. Bares initially pleaded not guilty but changed his plea at this week’s hearing.
Court records indicate that Bares was tried in federal court because his telegraph transactions crossed state lines into Minnesota. The investigation included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US Attorney’s Office, the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI).
Matt Althoff, chancellor of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, emailed parishioners in Tabor and Lesterville following Bares’ guilty plea and court appearance on Tuesday. The diocese includes South Dakota east of the Missouri River.
“Mr. Bares is awaiting sentencing in the United States District Court,” he said.
Althoff spoke late Wednesday afternoon to a meeting of parishioners from both churches, St. Wenceslaus Church in Tabor and St. John the Baptist Church in Lesterville. During the meeting at the Tabor church, Althoff pointed out that the illegal activity appears to be limited to Bares. No family member, priest or other individual has been linked to the embezzlement.
Currently, Bares faces 20 years in federal prison under the laws. However, federal sentencing guidelines could change and Bares could face a lesser sentence when he is sentenced Dec. 12 in federal court, Althoff said.
At Wednesday’s meeting in Tabor, Althoff spoke for about 90 minutes and took questions from the audience. Althoff explained many of the details included in the email sent to parishioners.
Bares’ employment with St. Wenceslaus Parish as Financial Accountant ended in September 2020. He served in several capacities on behalf of the parish for over 10 years before his departure from staff. His recordkeeping duties included similar responsibilities for the related parishes of St. John the Baptist and, prior to its merger, St. Agnes.
In April 2021, while performing a routine review of financial records and internal controls, a diocesan representative discovered an irregularity involving a grant to the parish from an outside charity.
After discovering the irregularity, the accounting firm Eide Bailly carried out a forensic examination of the financial records of the parishes of Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Saint-Venceslas. The review included examining records from January 2013 to April 2021. Eide Bailly identified $324,001 that had been diverted to a legal entity controlled by Bares.
Funds included $271,646 from St. Wenceslas, $52,355 from St. John the Baptist.
Upon receiving the findings of the forensic examination, the Diocesan Legal Counsel submitted Eide Bailly’s report to the South Dakota Attorney General’s office in July 2021. Under the direction of the GA, DCI conducted a investigation into the alleged embezzlement.
At the end of the DCI investigation, law enforcement determined that federal laws had been violated. Therefore, the FBI conducted a subsequent investigation and handed over its findings to the US Attorney.
The statement responded to questions raised about missing parish funds.
“Coverage of employee theft by Catholic Mutual, the insurance program in which the diocese participates, led to the recovery of funds that Mr. Bares admitted to taking,” Althoff said. “The coverage carries a limit of $250,000 for each parish. So, while funds from St. John the Baptist Parish have been fully reimbursed, approximately $22,000 of funds stolen from St. Wenceslaus are not covered by insurance due to established limits in coverage.
The insurance company paid the claim and the money is available for church expenses, he said. The diocese has covered the cost of the financial audit for now, but parishioners have debated whether they will ultimately have to cover the costs or if it will be part of Bares’ restitution.
Althoff noted that authorities have asked him and other diocesan officials, as well as Revs. Joe Forcelle and Mark Lichter, the parish priests, not to disclose any information or even the presence of an investigation.
Much of Wednesday’s meeting focused on the feelings of parishioners and where the churches are headed from here. Althoff spoke of increased diocesan steps for financial training and oversight, adding that the diocese reported accounting irregularities to authorities as soon as they were discovered.
“I can feel (the range of) emotions: betrayal, broken trust and violation,” he told the audience.
Althoff addressed anticipated changes at the parish and diocesan level.
“In the coming weeks, pastors will work with parish finance boards and accounting professionals to review all procedures and internal controls,” he said. “These efforts are aimed at restoring trust that may have been broken by a lay employee of the parish.”
Althoff was accompanied by Chris Motz, diocesan chief of staff, and Scott Johnson, diocesan financial officer. They did not speak during the meeting.
Forcelle and Lichter did not make formal introductions but expressed their thanks to the parishioners present. The diocese recorded the meeting, which Althoff said will be posted on social media for later viewing.
Forcelle told Press & Dakotan he has great confidence in the ability of parishes to come together and build on each other’s strengths for the future.
Addressing the audience, Lichter asked them to continue to pray and focus on the source of their strength as Catholics.
“We must place it at the feet of Jesus,” he said.
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