Catholic non-profit Opus Bono Sacerdotii has begun fundraising for Lansing-area priest Father Jonathan Wehrle’s legal and living expenses following last year’s allegations that Wehrle embezzled over $5,000,000 from his church.
According to the accusations, Wehrle—who founded St. Martha Parish in Okemos in 1988—used church money for personal expenses from 1991 to 2017. He now faces federal embezzlement charges, as well as a separate civil suit raised by an insurer for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing.
Wehrle’s legal fees are estimated to amount to $300,000. His assets have been frozen while he awaits trial.
Opus Bono president Joe Maher knows fundraising is not the response most organizations would have to a situation like this. But since 2002, when Maher’s own priest was accused (and later acquitted) of sexual abuse, he has supported thousands of priests all around the world through their legal and personal troubles.
Maher says he was alerted to Wehrle’s situation by some concerned supporters. In June, after talking to the Father himself, Maher decided to write a letter urging members of Wehrle’s community to donate to his cause.
“For Father Wehrle, this is quite literally an apocalyptic moment. He is unable to pay his legal team for a competent defense, and is now faced with the horrifying reality that, without the best defense possible, he will live the remainder of his years in state prison. Father Wehrle gets one chance at this; if he does not raise the cost of the legal fees now, he will lose his opportunity for justice, and for his freedom,” the letter reads.
Though Maher says they’ve already received some generous donations to Wehrle’s cause, the response hasn’t been entirely positive. He’s gotten some angry emails from former parishioners who are upset that Opus Bono is helping the accused priest.
“And I understand it,” Maher says. “I mean, they feel like they've been betrayed. The founding pastor [of their church] that's been there for so long, that they loved and supported, to hear these kind of things about him, yeah, I understand the kind of emotions behind it.”
For his part, Maher believes Wehrle is innocent. But he says Opus Bono will continue to offer its support to Wehrle for as long as necessary, even if he is found guilty.
“It’s sad to say, but our church literally does abandon our priests at times when these things happen. So we’re stepping in and we’re helping these priests so they can live out their life with dignity. And in the case of those that have offended, [so] that they never offend again—that they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.”
Maher won’t disclose how much has been raised for Wehrle.
The trial is scheduled to occur on August 13th in Ingham County.