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A Michigan priest was sentenced to at least four years in prison Monday, one month after a jury found he stole more than $830,000 from elderly priests for whom he supposedly helped to care.

Fr. David Rosenberg. Pillar file photo.

Fr. David Rosenberg’s prison sentence came after has was convicted Feb. 9 on eight felony counts, including three felony counts of embezzlement from a vulnerable adult of more than $100,000. The priest will also be ordered later this year to make restitution, but the amount has not yet been determined.

While Judge Cori Barkman declined to impose a lengthy sentence requested by prosecutors, she told the priest in court March 18 that his lack of remorse was “egregious and even heinous.”

The priest retains his presbyteral faculties, but has been directed by the Lansing diocese not to engage in public ministry.

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Rosenberg, 72, was charged in December 2022 with multiple counts of criminal embezzlement, committed against priests living in a Dewitt, Michigan, priests’ retirement home.

From 2015, Rosenberg served as director of a diocesan retreat center adjacent to the diocesan-run home for retired priests.

The crimes came as the priest transferred money from elderly priests to several accounts linked to him personally and to a non-profit charity he directed.

At his sentencing Monday, Judge Barkman told Rosenberg that he had “victimized men who undoubtedly spent their entire adult life in service to the Church,” according to the Lansing State Journal.

The judge sentenced the priest to four to 20 years on his most serious embezzlement convictions, with several lesser sentences to run concurrently, according to court records obtained by The Pillar.

The priest requested to be released while he appeals his conviction, but the judge denied his request and ordered him to be taken into custody.

While prosecutors asked that Rosenberg be required to make restitution of $360,000, Barkman deferred her judgment on restitution to later this year.

From the bench, Barkman said she was concerned that Rosenberg will have the opportunity to steal again, especially because of the number of people who wrote letters on his behalf, and said the priest has been their spiritual director.

The Lansing diocese told The Pillar on Monday that it will review Rosenberg’s canonical status soon.

“Today’s sentencing of Father David Rosenberg for embezzling fellow priests is, as you’d expect, a moment of sadness for our diocese,” spokesman David Kerr told The Pillar. 

“We pray that the sentence imposed upon Father Rosenberg will bring some comfort to the families of his victims, may they rest in peace, and hope that he will fully pay the required restitution promptly.”

A diocesan official told The Pillar on background Monday that Lansing diocesan attorneys will begin reviewing court documents as they become available, and that chancery officials have scheduled a meeting for early April to discuss the priest’s faculties, and the prospect of a canonical penal process to address the theft.

The official said that while Rosenberg retains his faculties, he has been directed not to undertake any public ministry.

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According to courtroom charging documents, Rosenberg stole hundreds of thousands from three priests living in a diocesan-run retirement home.

In one case, Rosenberg was charged with stealing more than $500,000 from the retirement and investment accounts of Fr. Benjamin Werner, who died in December 2018.

Police said 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 said 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.

The priest then 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, Rosenberg was convicted of deceiving 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.”

Robert Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University, and a retired IRS investigator with an expertise in forensic accounting and the financial fraud perpetrated by priests, has emphasized that priests who are convicted of theft should face strict criminal and canonical penalties, to deter financial crime in the Church.

He said Rosenberg’s criminal sentence meets those criteria.

“Father Rosenberg's four year sentence serves the dual goals of deterring Father Rosenberg from similar conduct in the future, and also creates a general deterrent for other priests in a similar position who may want to prey upon elderly clergy members but are unwilling to receive a similar penalty.”

“Father Rosenberg's sentence appears to be harsher than similar cases, perhaps because his attorneys taunted the prosecutors through the media and opted for a trial instead of resolving the case through a plea agreement,” Warren added.

“For instance, a priest from the Diocese of San Jose received a 3 year sentence in 2017 for bank fraud and tax evasion and was ordered to make restitution of $1.4 million, an amount substantially higher than the $800,000 Father Rosenberg was convicted of stealing. In that case, the priest pleaded guilty to the bank fraud charges and lost at trial on the tax fraud charges.”

But Warren pointed out that priests who are convicted of theft are not always removed permanently from ministry by ecclesiastical authorities — which, he said, is a lost opportunity to deter would-be clerical thieves.

“Father Rosenberg should not give up hope on returning to ministry if he so chooses,” he said.

“In Akron, a priest who pleaded guilty to two federal felonies related to embezzling over $900,000 from a nonprofit charity he founded and served on the board was sentenced to only six months in jail and was retired with full benefits and returned to ministry in 2012,” he noted.

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 2022 pretrial statements to local press, the priest’s attorney called his client “at worst [...] a holier version of Robin Hood.”

In a somewhat contradictory claim, attorney Dustyn Coontz also told the Lansing State Journal in December 2022 that his client was “completely innocent.” 

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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.

In September 2023, the Lansing diocese emphasized to The Pillar 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 last year that safeguards are in place to protect parishes and other institutions from financial misconduct committed by priests.

“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,” a diocesan spokesmen told The Pillar 

“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,” the diocese added.

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