Priest accused of embezzlement stands mute to theft charge

| February 16, 2010

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN – The Rev. Robert Chukwu shook hands and mingled in the Crawford County courtroom Monday before his name was called.

The Catholic priest stared forward and pressed his lips together for most of his preliminary hearing as the district attorney laid out a felony theft case that accuses him of stealing about $200,000 from two Crawford County parishes and the Diocese of La Crosse.

Chukwu, who wore his clerical collar to court, stood mute as a not guilty plea was entered on his behalf.

Chukwu sent money to priests, a nun, a school and family in Nigeria between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2009, according to the criminal complaint. He holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Nigeria and had been assigned to St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gays Mills and St. Phillip's Catholic Church in Soldiers Grove.

Chukwu, 59, spent $6,000 in 2008 to buy and mail a 40-foot container filled with $100,000 in artificial flowers, candlesticks, pedestal tables and other merchandise to Nigeria for profit, the complaint stated. Chukwu already spent $50,000 filling another shipment.

Money from the 2007 flood damage "was probably the primary source" of the money, diocesan clergy liaison the Rev. Joseph Hirsch testified.

Chukwu used the parishes' debit cards to purchase the items, said diocesan financial officer Sondra Rieder.

Chukwu told Hirsch and diocesan attorney Jim Birnbaum during a Dec. 17 meeting he also invested money in Nigeria for a better interest rate than the diocese offered.

"He said he knew it wasn't following protocol of the diocese," Hirsch testified.

The diocese hired an independent accounting firm in December to review parish books when it noticed excessive long distance telephone charges, Rieder said.

She said Chukwu disbanded the parishes' finance councils before she was silenced by an objection.

Auditor Sandy Jensen said she discovered about $200,000 in debit card transactions without invoices. About $100,000 was reimbursed to the account.

Jensen also discovered money orders signed by Chukwu for $5,500 to a shipping company and $9,000 to a priest in Texas.

Chukwu, who is free on a $25,000 signature bond, returns to court April 7 for a status hearing.

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Category: Church Security

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