Church official pleads to theft

Secretary stole $6,500 from offering plates

NEW PALESTINE — A church secretary stole $6,500 from the offering plate after she fell behind on her personal bills, police said.

Mary Armstrong, 69, of New Palestine, pleaded guilty to conversion as a Class A misdemeanor ahead of her trial, which was scheduled for this week, court records show. She originally was charged with felony theft after admitting to church elders — and later police — she had fallen behind on personal bills and had taken advantage of her position as financial secretary for New Palestine United Methodist Church in an effort to catch up, court records state.

Armstrong’s one-year sentence was suspended to probation as part of a plea agreement offered by prosecutors, and she no longer works in the church office.

Armstrong, who had helped the church treasurer by depositing the weekly offerings for more than three years, told investigators she was “borrowing money until she could sell her house” and repay what she had taken, according to charging documents.

“Mary was very upset that she did this and repeatedly said, ‘This is not me,’” while being interviewed at her kitchen table by a police officer who visited her home after church leaders called to report the theft, records state.

At the time, financial duties at the 275-member church, 3565 S. County Road 500W in New Palestine, were divided among several lay leaders. Each Sunday, counters tallied the number of checks and cash contributions, noting the total in a ledger before turning over the offering to Armstrong.

Armstrong told investigators she “wouldn’t do a deposit right away and take some of the cash,” then wait for the next week’s offerings to come in so she could use money from that week to repay what she had stolen the previous week, police reports state.

“Mary said that she thought she would eventually be able to catch up and repay what she had taken but was unable to accomplish repayment,” court records state.

A church treasurer noticed the discrepancy between the ledger’s record of the offering amounts that should have been deposited and the church’s bank account and raised concerns to the Rev. Mark Wesler, the pastor, as well as church elders.

Wesler said he was surprised and hurt when he learned one of his church members — someone he trusted — was taking money from the church.

Wesler immediately removed Armstrong from the position when questions arose.

“We’ve dealt with it,” Wesler said. “It was a volunteer position, but she’s no longer in it, nor does she serve in any capacity in the church.”

But church leaders have forgiven Armstrong, he said, adding Armstrong, who still worships there, reimbursed the church for every penny she took.

Church leaders originally planned to allow Armstrong to pay back the money but decided they needed a police report to provide their insurance company and the church’s district office with documentation about the missing funds, records state.

Attorney Bill Niemier of New Palestine, who represented Armstrong, could not be reached for comment.

Reporter Kristy Deer contributed to this story.

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Noelle Steele is editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3232 or nsteele@greenfieldreporter.com.