St. Bernard's Catholic Church in Watertown has sued one of its members for allegedly ensnaring parishioners and the church itself in an investment opportunity that was "fraudulent and non-existent," according to a lawsuit.
Fallout from the matter is proving widespread. More than 30 individuals are thought to have lost about $400,000 combined, and the church is out another $55,000, according to church and Madison Catholic Diocese officials.
The church's priest, the Rev. Thomas Marr, has been removed from the parish and put on administrative leave by the diocese while his role is sorted out. Watertown Police Chief Tim Roets said Monday his department is conducting a criminal investigation with the assistance of the white-collar crime unit of the state Department of Justice.
The parishioner at the center of the lawsuit, Arthur Eith, 66, of rural Juneau, told the State Journal on Monday he is "just sick" about how everything is playing out and that he will be vindicated once a windfall he's anticipating comes through.
"I still intend to make good on all this," Eith said, adding that he knows he "looks like the heavy."
Waiting for paycheck
According to the lawsuit, Eith approached Marr, his parish priest, about three years ago regarding a "purported investment opportunity." Eith claimed he was owed millions of dollars from the Nigerian government for consulting work he'd done there but said he needed money up front in order to retrieve his paycheck.
Eith promised to make "substantial contributions to the congregation and various Catholic entities and charities upon his receipt of the funds allegedly due him," according to the lawsuit, filed Sept. 9 in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
Marr then apparently took about $55,000 from the church's account and gave it to Eith. He also solicited money from parishioners and others and delivered it to Eith "supposedly in order to increase the return Eith was promising to pay the congregation," the lawsuit said. All of Eith's representations "were untrue," the lawsuit said.
In a statement released Monday, Monsignor Dan Ganshert, the diocese's second in command, said that Marr "inappropriately borrowed" the $55,000 from the church without the knowledge of the parish's various councils and trustees. In addition, the diocese believes Marr borrowed the other money directly from parishioners, friends, family and other priests, perhaps giving different reasons for needing the money.
"Each of these persons (was) unaware of others that Father Marr had approached," Ganshert said. Marr was placed on leave July 16 due to concerns about parish finances.
Marr no longer resides in the church rectory, according to Brent King, a diocesan spokesman. Attempts to reach him Monday were not successful.
"There really was no investment to be made," King said. "It was somebody preying on someone who was well-meaning but perhaps naive when it comes to investments."
The church's finances are stable, King said. The Rev. Brian Wilk, pastor of St. Henry's Catholic Church in Watertown, is serving both churches for now.
Eith told the State Journal he has done international agribusiness consulting work for 30 years, primarily in the area of restoring land following the extraction of oil. He currently is owed several millions of dollars from the Nigerian government, he said.
Eith denies that he proposed an investment scheme to Marr. He said he went to Marr because he didn't know where else to turn and needed money to pay taxes and legal fees in order to get his Nigerian paycheck. He said he told Marr that if the church could somehow help him, he would donate $1 million.
"As self-serving as this sounds, I really wanted to do something for the parish," he said.
Eith said he has been a member of St. Bernard's for about eight years. He said he never asked Marr to take money from the church or from parishioners and had no idea where the funds were coming from. He said he used the money for business expenses, not personal spending.
"This is just killing me," Eith said. "I really feel badly for Father Tom. He is such a gentleman and such an honest person, and I am, too. My intentions are absolutely honorable."
Eith said he expects to be paid soon by the Nigerian government, perhaps within a week or two.