OAK CREEK — Parishioners of St. Matthew Parish learned from their pastor Christmas Day that the parish’s secretary, Darlene Vodvarka, 57, of Oak Creek, was charged Dec. 20 with two counts of theft of more than $10,000.

According to the criminal complaint, if convicted, Vodvarka, who has been secretary for 14 years, could face up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000 for allegedly embezzling more than $217,000 worth of Scrip funds from the parish. A preliminary hearing will be held Jan. 11 to determine if there is probable cause to allow the case to proceed to trial, according to an email from Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney David Feiss.

Fr. Patrick O’Loughlin, pastor of St. Matthew, said the timing – Christmas Mass – wasn’t ideal, but he was able to get the message out to the many people who filled the church and that they received it well.

“I incorporated what I needed to tell them into my homily and told people that the hard part is over. We’re still here, we’re still doing the good work….” he told your Catholic Herald in a phone interview last week. “That’s a great blessing, and so over the last seven months, people have known that we were looking into things and were concerned with how some of our accounting seemed to have been done and it raised questions, but the people kept coming, people kept praying, people kept supporting the parish and the other ministries of the church and I could not have asked for anything more.”

Fr. O’Loughlin said he has been updating the congregation when and with as much information as he can to let parishioners know that the church cares about their money.

“I certainly want to take good care of it (parishioners’ money) and spend it the way that we tell people that we’re going to spend it, and I think they’ll continue to give,” he said. “I think it’s just who they are.”

An update Fr. O’Loughlin posted on the parish’s website explains that he and Kris Wegner, the parish’s director of administrative services, began a review of the parish’s financial activity for the 2010-2011 fiscal year in May. What they found in the recording of tuition payments “revealed a pattern of inaccuracies that could not be explained as simple mistakes, but indicated an intentional plan to manipulate the parish financial records,” Fr. O’Loughlin wrote, noting that he contacted the Oak Creek Police Department, which launched its own investigation; Catholic Mutual Group, the administrator of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee participants’ insurance program that provides coverage for financial losses like this; and the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

He followed the archdiocesan policy and suspended Vodvarka as of May 31, according to the incident report filed with the Oak Creek Police Department, because of her direct association with financial irregularities. As the secretary, she made deposits to the church’s bank account.

He also said Julie Wolf, communications director for the archdiocese, was helpful in guiding him through communication of the situation with parishioners.

“We just helped him determine the best plan for communicating what was happening and not only keeping his parishioners informed, but keeping the community informed,” Wolf told your Catholic Herald. “We’re just there for all of our parishes, to support them.”

She said that while policies and procedures are in place to prevent things like this from happening, the best piece of advice that parishes should follow if they find themselves in a similar situation is to always to contact the authorities.

“They’re the right people to handle situations like this,” said Wolf, noting that individuals can also confidentially report financial misconduct to the third-party company, EthicsPoint, accessible through the archdiocese’s homepage, archmil.org.

According to the criminal complaint from the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, Wegner discovered that tuition income from St. Matthew School didn’t appear to match what should have been collected, which prompted him to research the issue. What he found, according to the complaint, were discrepancies in the payment amounts credited to individual family accounts and those logged in the parish’s cash journal books.

The complaint also said that Wegner found from about June 2004 through June 2011 that Vodvarka took property from the church “by manipulating payment records in connection with a church fund-raising program called Scrip in which various merchant gift cards were sold to parishioners and school parents.”

According to the complaint, Wegner said it was during that time period when Vodvarka generated records showing she had purchased $227,390 worth of Scrip, when the checks she wrote to the church for these purchases totaled $225,935 and bank records show that only $8,452 worth of her checks were actually deposited. It also noted that Wegner found that Vodvarka also purchased Scrip for cash, which appeared in smaller amounts or not at all in the deposit.

“Through this scheme the defendant was able to take over $217,000 worth of Scrip from the church without making payment,” the complaint said.

Fr. O’Loughlin said that Catholic Mutual approved the parish’s insurance claim submitted Aug. 30, and the parish received a check for more than $200,000 Nov. 14. “The insurance payment is some consolation as we face the fact that the parish’s financial processes, though very good in many respects, nonetheless had weak links that were very skillfully exploited,” he wrote in his online update, noting that the weak links have been eliminated and lessons learned.

Fr. O’Loughlin told your Catholic Herald that the parish is careful with people’s money and that this situation wasn’t accidental.

“As we understand it, somebody was on the inside and really knew the ins and outs and knew how to do things that would not be accurate accounting and then (took) advantage of that, and it takes a really careful looking sometimes to find that,” he said, noting that the problem stemmed from how the Scrip program money was handled, not the program itself.

Fr. O’Loughlin said details and execution when handling people’s money are key to preventing these situations because their money deserves the “most careful scrutiny.” “You’ve got to have the right plan and the right procedures, but it’s really got to be executed and if things don’t match, you’ve got to find out why that is….” he said. “Lots of parishes have plans, but they’ve got to really do them and make sure they’re working and get the right answers, otherwise things like this happen.”

Jay Frymark, director of parish and school financial services for the archdiocese, said that even with the policy that the archbishop has endorsed saying that larger parishes like St. Matthew – those with $750,000 of revenue or more – receive an annual review and the smaller – those with less than $750,000 of revenue – receive biennial reviews, certain things can slip through.

“It’s not an audit; it’s a review of practices and procedures – they’re not looking for fraud,” he said, explaining that large parish reviews are done by a CPA firm chosen by the parish, and small parish reviews are done by his office. “If they find it, certainly they will bring it to the parish’s attention and our attention and say, ‘We think there’s a problem there,’ but they look that they’re following the basic guidelines and principles in our parish financial management manual and then they will make recommendations for improvement and then we will follow up on those.”

He advises parishes to follow sound internal controls as outlined in the parish financial management manual.

“If they follow those, they will certainly minimize any risk that might be present,” he said.