Church accuses former employee


The Archdiocese of Baltimore is accusing a 48-year-old former employee of stealing nearly half a million dollars from church accounts over the past three years.

In a news release yesterday, the archdiocese said an internal investigation showed that Victor George Puotinen, an employee for about five years, took $443,000 from accounts at the Basilica of the Assumption parish and at the archdiocese's headquarters.

Puotinen has not been charged with a crime. Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, said yesterday that her office received information about the case last week and is investigating.

Reached at his Stoneleigh home last night, Puotinen referred questions about the case to a man he said was his lawyer, Ray Peroutka. But Peroutka, in fact, is an accountant for the archdiocese who said he did not represent Puotinen and could not speak for the accused or for the archdiocese.

Subsequent attempts to reach Puotinen were unsuccessful. But WBAL-TV reported that Puotinen said he was cooperating with insurance investigators and was making arrangements to return the money with interest, the Associated Press reported.

Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the alleged theft was uncovered during a "routine" annual audit of archdiocese finances. When it appeared some money was missing, Puotinen was confronted, and fired July 19. Further investigation determined how much money was missing.

Both the state's attorney's office and archdiocesan officials refused to discuss many aspects of the case yesterday, including which accounts were involved, how the money was taken and what Puotinen said when confronted with the accusation.

A $25 million renovation is planned at the basilica, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States. About $18 million has been pledged toward the project. Sources said some of the money may have been taken from that fund.

Kearney said church officials released the information because they wanted to alert donors that money was missing and to assure them they had put safeguards in place to prevent such a theft from occurring again. Such safeguards, he said, now include daily reconciliation of accounts.

"It's very disappointing that an employee would steal from the church, because he's not only stealing from the institution, but the people who support that institution and the people whom the church works to help," Kearney said.

He said that most of the loss should be covered by insurance. "But still, we can't stand for this. We have to take action, and that's why we've reported it and are speaking publicly."

Court records show Puotinen has twice had brushes with the law. In 1994, he was charged with battery. Charges of passing a bad check and theft of less than $300 were filed the next year. All of the charges were tabled and ultimately dropped.

Kearney said a criminal background check was not performed when Puotinen was hired as a development associate at archdiocese headquarters because he was a relatively low-level employee who did not work with children. References were checked, and they yielded no information about the charges, Kearney said.

Puotinen later moved to the basilica, where he was in charge of parish administrative services. In both jobs, he had some access to church accounts, Kearney said.

Two prominent local Catholics yesterday expressed dismay at the archdiocese's announcement, saying that the loss of funds is particularly damaging coming on the heels of the church's sex abuse scandal.

"It's very sad, that we have employees stealing money," said Baltimore Councilwoman Agnes Welch. "With as many problems as we're encountering at this time, we don't need any more like this."

Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes said he hoped the losses would not delay the restoration.

"An amount of that size could have a negative impact, but if there's insurance to soften the blow, and the generosity of people enthusiastic about this restoration also comes into play, I don't think it would stall the renovation," Byrnes said.

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