Church treasurer headed to prison for embezzling $819,000

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Christian Bileth owned a financial auditing company with this slogan: “Stop Losing Money Between the Cracks.”

But for more than five years, he exploited huge cracks at the Grand Rapids West Side church where he was a member.

Bileth, 56, of Grand Rapids, was sentenced Thursday to five to 15 years in prison for embezzling more than three quarters of a million dollars from St. John’s United Church of Christ.

St. John’s United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids. (May 14, 2021)

Court records show he had been president of the church’s board and served as its treasurer. He wrote 66 checks from the church’s investment account to his auditing company, Core Audit Consulting, totaling nearly $819,000, records show.

“You don’t normally see that type of money because most people or organizations don’t necessarily have that type of money and lose it where they wouldn’t notice right away,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said.

Bileth reportedly used some of the money for his own cancer treatments.

Court records show the embezzlement started in March 2014 and ended in late 2019. A new church treasurer later noticed discrepancies, records show.

“At some point in time, the person in control can’t have control forever and the new people start looking at things and say, yep, something’s wrong here,” Becker said.

Bileth hasn’t started his prison term. News 8 reached him on Friday by phone. He apologized but refused further comment.

The prosecutor said his office handles one or two cases like this a year targeting volunteer groups, though rarely for this much.

“It’s the volunteer organizations, you know, whether we see the (parent-teacher organizations), the Little Leagues, the churches because they’re a volunteer organization,” Becker said.

And nobody, he said, wants to keep the books.

“You kind of trust each other: You’re a church member; I see you at Mass; I see you at the T-ball game.”

He recommended an annual outside audit.

St. John’s United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids. (May 14, 2021)

It’s not clear what kind of affect the theft had on the church on Bridge Street at Lake Michigan Drive or its more than 100 members. Church leaders didn’t return calls Friday.

“I think $800,000 for a church is a pretty big hit in terms of their operations,” the prosecutor said.

The judge ordered restitution but the prosecutor doubts that will ever happen:

“That type of money we just very seldom see paid back.”

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