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Tonawanda priest sent back to India after thefts discovered

The parochial vicar of St. Christopher Roman Catholic Church in the Town of Tonawanda has been sent back to his home country of India after being caught endorsing checks meant for the church's outreach program, the church's pastor told parishioners at Masses on Sunday.

The Rev. Steve Jekielek announced to the congregation that the Rev. Suresh Yamarthy had been sent back to India to "face the consequences of his actions."

It was the second such incident at the church, following a much larger theft by the church's former secretary and business manager that was discovered in 2006.

Yamarthy had been assigned to St. Christopher for three years starting in June 2016. His last homily on the church's website was given Oct. 29.

Before that, he had been assigned to St. Mark and St. Rose of Lima parishes in North Buffalo — his first assignments in the United States. He was at those parishes for less than six months.

Jekielek made the announcement about Yamarthy just before the end of Mass, first saying that he wanted to address the "rumors and innuendo" that parishioners might have heard.

The amount of the checks totaled about $500, Jekielek told the congregation.

Yamarthy, who was still listed as a staff member on St. Christopher's website Sunday afternoon, gave a sermon at the church on Oct. 29.

The Rev. Suresh Yamarthy made restitution and returned to India after a theft was discovered from St. Christopher Roman Catholic Church, where he had served for more than a year.

Town of Tonawanda police said they had received only routine calls to the church since then, nothing concerning a possible theft of funds.

George Richert, director of the Diocesan Office of Communications, said he could not answer questions but emailed a statement about the matter.

The statement said, "The staff at St. Christopher’s parish recently learned of a discrepancy involving less than $500. The matter was reported to the Diocese of Buffalo, which immediately conducted an investigation.

"Following the investigation, the individual involved made full restitution.

"After consultation with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, a decision was made not to press charges, and the individual was removed from (his) position and left the Diocese of Buffalo.

"The diocese takes very seriously the responsibility of good stewardship and ensuring the trust of the generous donors. In this case, good work at the parish level helped discover an unfortunate and rare case of mistrust."

Ironically, Jekielek's topic this week on the parish's webpage was about people who are described as being "two-faced," the topic of two Bible readings during the Mass.

Being two-faced "is not a compliment as we know!" Jekielek wrote. "It is normally used to describe a person who in public presents himself/herself as the most wonderful of people, but in private can be quite the opposite. ...

"I often wonder how a person can live that way. What is to be gained? Most often, after a few encounters with the person, other people figure out their true personality and realize that the public persona is fake ...

"Jesus is especially forthright in His calling out the leaders of the Temple. He tells the people to listen to what the priests are teaching, but to avoid imitating their actions because the priests were not living what they preached!

"As Christian people, we are called to both publicly and privately live in accord with the teachings of Jesus. We are not to live publicly as Christians but privately, when we think nobody is watching, live in opposition to the Christian way of life. Even if no other person is aware, we can be sure that God is very much aware!"

St. Christopher's parish, at 2660 Niagara Falls Blvd., was rocked by one of the area's largest embezzlement cases in 2006, when former secretary and business manager Maureen Durrell, then 47, was charged with second-degree grand larceny in the theft of up to $488,000 from the church between September 1998 and February 2005.

Those thefts were discovered during an audit, which also discovered that Durrell had systematically deleted financial data from the church computer. The matter was then turned over to the District Attorney's Office.

The church found that Durrell stole $488,000, but then-District Attorney Frank J. Clark said his office was only able to prove $230,000 had been illegally siphoned away because of the altered records.

Investigators said she spent the money on lavish vacations, home improvements and family expenses.

Durrell pleaded guilty in 2007 to second-degree grand larceny and faced up to 15 years in prison. She was sentenced by State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang to serve six months in jail and to repay the church $135,000 in partial restitution. She was also ordered to serve five years of parole.

After she was sentenced, Clark blasted what he considered a lenient term. "She's lucky I wasn't sentencing her," Clark said. "If we're going to deter conduct like this, and we're talking about this much money being taken from a church, it seems we should be sending a stronger kind of message.

"If she took $488,000 and had to go to jail for six months, that ain't bad pay for six months away."

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