A Michigan priest will be in court this fall, facing charges that he stole some $830,000 from elderly priests he was allegedly helping to care for — one of whom was on his deathbed.
Fr. David Rosenberg has pled not guilty to three counts of embezzling from “vulnerable adults,” and multiple counts related to fraud. If convicted, Rosenberg will face decades in prison.
An expert in financial crimes said the case against Rosenberg should be a warning for bishops about the possibility of theft committed against elderly priests — even by other clerics.
Rosenberg, 70, was charged in December 2022 with multiple counts of criminal embezzlement, committed against priests living in a Dewitt, Michigan, priests’ retirement home.
From 2015, the priest served as director of a diocesan retreat center adjacent to a diocesan-run home for retired priests.
According to courtroom charging documents, Rosenberg stole hundreds of thousands from three of the priests living in that retirement home.
In one case, Rosenberg is charged with stealing more than $500,000 from the retirement and investment accounts of Fr. Benjamin Werner, who died in December 2018.
Police charge that soon after Werner suffered a stroke in January 2018 — and was reportedly suffering from a severely “altered mental state” — Rosenberg had the priest sign a document giving him power of attorney. Rosenberg then placed himself as a signatory on Werner’s checking account, and created a trust, with himself as trustee, allowing him to manage Werner’s assets and open an additional bank account.
But police say that Rosenberg transferred the assets in Werner’s IRA and investment accounts — along with money from his checking account — into a nonprofit corporation founded by Rosenberg, called the FaithFirst Foundation — which was originally incorporated as the Rosenberg Family Foundation.
The FaithFirst nonprofit used some of the money from Werner’s accounts to purchase properties in the region, and to pay off credit card bills, police say. Rosenberg deposited other funds into a string of bank accounts he opened on behalf of the FaithFirst nonprofit.
Another resident of the priests’ retirement home was Fr. Joe Aubin, who was in 2018 removed from ministry after an allegation of sexual abuse which the diocese deemed “credible.”
After an alleged victim reported Aubin to the Lansing diocese, Rosenberg told local media that Aubin had admitted to him “something that happened between and his student 50 years ago.”
In March 2020, Aubin suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. On April 9, he was placed on hospice care.
According to police reports and medical records, Aubin, then 85, was mostly unresponsive, was unable to communicate, and was taking morphine and lorazepam, a drug used for palliative sedation.
But on April 13, Aubin allegedly wrote a check to Fr. Rosenberg for $178,022 from his PNC Bank account.
On the same day, Rosenberg opened a joint bank account with Aubin at a local credit union — and deposited into that account the $178,022 check which Aubin allegedly signed.
Two days later, on April 15, 2020, Aubin died.
The next day, April 16, PNC Bank declined to clear the check written to Rosenberg, claiming it was a suspicious circumstance.
But Rosenberg was apparently prepared for that possibility.
The priest presented himself at the credit union with another check from Aubin’s checkbook — the very next check in sequential order — again dated April 13, and again written for $178,022. But that check was not made out to Rosenberg — it was made out to Aubin, and allegedly signed by Aubin.
When Rosenberg deposited that check in the credit union checking account he had opened jointly with Aubin, the check cleared.
In a November 2022 probable cause hearing, a Michigan criminal investigator told a judge that Rosenberg had admitted he signed the second check.
In the case of a third priest living at the retirement home, Fr. Kenneth McDonald, charging documents allege that Rosenberg deceived the priest, promising him that he could make investments through the FaithFirst Foundation, while actually having the priest sign documents by which he donated $122,803.92 to the foundation.
“Fr. McDonald thought he was going to get his money back,” an investigator testified in November 2022, but the “paperwork indicates that that would not have happened.”
The investigator testified that Rosenberg deceived McDonald by providing him monthly payments, which Rosenberg allegedly said were “interest” from his “investments.”
McDonald believed that upon his death, the investigator said, “that $122,803.92 [would] come back to his estate … and according to what we see here on the paperwork that he had signed, that was not gonna happen.”
McDonald “was misled into what he believed was gonna happen,” the investigator explained.
Rosenberg was ordained in 2011, after studies at St. John XXIII Seminary, which forms older, “late vocations,” for priestly ministry. He could not be reached for comment.
The priest’s attorney has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Pillar.
But in December, the priest’s attorney said that Rosenberg was focused on serving the poor through the FaithFirst Foundation.
"At worst, Father David is a holier version of Robin Hood," attorney Dustyn Coontz told the Lansing State Journal. "At best (and in reality), Father David Rosenberg is completely innocent of the accusations against him."
A statement from Coontz, posted Dec. 1 on the website of the FaithFirst Foundation, said that “each of the allegations will be easy for Father David to overcome.”
“What’s more reasonable: the Attorney General’s story of a mastermind manipulator who doesn’t even personally benefit from the crimes or the possibility that clergy wanted to be charitable with their earthly treasures as they contemplated the eternal? We think the latter is far more reasonable,” the attorney said.
The statement said that each of the priests from whom Rosenberg allegedly stole had chosen to make charitable contributions to the priest’s nonprofit.
Coontz also suggested that Rosenberg was facing prosecution because of the state attorney general’s probe into clerical sexual abuse in the state.
“It seems to us that the Attorney General—who encourages the reporting of Catholic priests by way of a hotline—received a juicy tip. This particular time, it was for financial misdeeds. But the AG’s office has still leapt at the opportunity to prosecute. Unfortunately, that means Father David has a rough road ahead in the short term,” the lawyer wrote.
“Fortunately, he’s innocent of these allegations and will be vindicated in the end.”
In its own Dec. 1 statement, the Lansing diocese said that the charges against Rosenberg are “deeply disturbing,” and urged prayer for the priest’s alleged victims.
But the diocese emphasized that Rosenberg did not have an assignment with the retired priests from whom he allegedly stole, and an official of the Lansing diocese told The Pillar that safeguards are in place to protect parishes and other institutions from financial misconduct committed by priests.
“The Diocese of Lansing notes that the alleged embezzlement is not regarding any official role Father Rosenberg had with the Diocese and no money is alleged to have been embezzled from diocesan entities. Rather, the alleged embezzlement concerns Father Rosenberg’s own personal activities,” its December statement explained.
A spokesperson for the diocese told The Pillar last month that while Rosenberg retains priestly faculties, he has been instructed by Bishop Earl Boyea to refrain from public ministry.
The spokesperson said that Rosenberg could face canonical charges after the conclusion of the criminal trial he is now facing.
Rosenberg is not the first Lansing priest to be charged with embezzlement.
Fr. Jonathan Wehrle was charged in 2017 with six felony counts of embezzlement, as authorities alleged the priest stole nearly $5 million from the parish where he was pastor. The missing money was detected during a diocesan audit.
Wehrle, who maintained his innocence, died in 2020. Before he was arrested, the priest built a six-bedroom, 11,000 square foot house, which his lawyer said was paid for with family money.
Robert Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University, is a retired IRS investigator with an expertise in forensic accounting and the financial fraud perpetrated by priests.
Earlier this year, Warren and co-author Timothy Fogarty, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, published a comprehensive study, “Exploring Embezzlement by Catholic Priests in the United States: A Content Analysis of Cases Since 1963,” in the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting.
Warren told The Pillar that “Father Rosenberg enjoys a presumption of innocence on all charges unless or until he is convicted.”
But the expert added that based upon his reading of the case’s court documents, “the charges are serious and the evidence against Rosenberg is detailed, specific, and compelling.”
Warren said he is aware of several cases in which priests are accused of stealing from fellow priests, especially priests who are elderly and infirm.
Warren told The Pillar that in his view, “bishops have a duty to care for their elderly and infirm priests, especially those with acute physical or mental diminishment. This care should entail engaging elder care professionals such as attorneys, CPAs, and court appointed guardians who understand and will faithfully execute their fiduciary duty on behalf of these vulnerable priests.”
“It is customary for retired diocesan priests to reside in a diocesan retirement home,” Warren noted.
“In cases such as these, the bishop must exercise due diligence to appoint someone with the proper credentials, and he should exercise proper oversight through outside audits, surprise inspections, and an anonymous fraud reporting hotline,” he explained.
Warren also noted that Rosenberg’s engagement with the priests was not connected to his official assignment, involving instead the nonprofit organization the priest operated.
Canon law prohibits priests from operating businesses without the permission of their bishops. Warren urged a similar caution about clerics involved in non-ecclesial nonprofit organizations.
“Bishops should be wary of allowing their priests to have ‘side hustles’ such as non-diocesan sponsored not-for-profits, for two reasons. First, it diverts the priest's time and attention to his diocesan ministry — I’m sure if a priest had enough time to run a side business, that his bishop could find a parish that needed confessions heard, marriages witnessed, or Masses celebrated,” Warren said.
“Second, the books and records of the not-for-profit reside outside the bishop's control, so he may not be able to exercise any financial oversight to ensure that there is no cause for scandal, which is alleged in the Father Rosenberg case,” he added.
Lansing diocesan spokesman David Kerr told The Pillar that “it is obviously the prayerful aspiration of the Diocese of Lansing that the present criminal proceedings against Father David Rosenberg deliver justice, healing and peace to all those involved.”
“Across the Diocese of Lansing, we are currently rolling out a new deanery model with enhanced authority for local deans, and parish groupings within each deanery, to help build greater fraternity and accountability among our presbyterate. In short, to help our priests be healthy, happy and holy – including in the realm of good financial management”.
“The present process of reform and improvement has been in train since 2019 and, thus, predates the allegations leveled against Father Rosenberg and hence, in that sense, is unrelated to those ongoing criminal proceedings.”
Michigan’s attorney general’s office told The Pillar that Rosenberg’s criminal trial is due to begin Nov. 1.
Editors’ note: This report was updated after publication to include the allegation of abuse made against Fr. Joseph Aubin.