A Glen Burnie minister was sentenced yesterday to six months of home detention and six years of probation for stealing more than $40,000 from a Baltimore women's shelter -- a crime that forced the shelter to close and fostered a bitter dispute over the pastorate of his church.
In sentencing the Rev. Paul A. Murray, the 40-year-old pastor of the Apostolic Lighthouse Church, Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas Waxter said he likely would have given prison time to the preacher for bilking the Susanna Wesley House had there not been a plea agreement for confessing to the theft. The agreement, reached in May, assured Murray that he would not go to prison.
"We're not perfect ... but this, in my view, is a major problem, a major hole for you to dig out of, Mr. Murray," Waxter said.
Murray pleaded guilty to taking money from the Methodist-run shelter during his eight-month tenure as its executive director in 2000 and 2001.
An investigation of the shelter's finances revealed that Murray had diverted donations made to the shelter to accounts he controlled, used a shelter credit card to buy personal items for his home and spent shelter funds on a trip to Puerto Rico for him and his wife.
He was ordered to pay full restitution, at $300 a month, to an insurance company that covered the loss.
In a tense hearing in which church members disagreed over retaining him as their minister, a tearful Murray asked shelter officials to forgive him for his actions. He said he had brought shame to his wife and her God-fearing family by the decisions he had made.
"I wish I could roll back time and make it all right," Murray said. "I am so, so sorry."
Murray's wife, Rachel, tried to hold back tears as she sat trembling before Waxter, pleading with the judge to give the minister as light a sentence as possible.
"He has changed," Rachel Murray said. "I would also ask that you have mercy on Paul so he can move on with his life."
Officials from Susanna Wesley House took a harsher stance. Sabrina White, president of its board of directors, told the judge that officials at the shelter felt obligated to bring charges against Murray in hopes that it would prevent him from harming another nonprofit agency.
"Paul Murray dismantled everything that had taken years to put in place," White said. "He even stole donated checks of $5 and $10."
Murray's theft also shook his congregation, prompting disputes between parishioners and with the church's parent organization, the United Pentecostal Church.
The courtroom session turned into a verbal free-for-all after Waxter asked if anyone among the more than two dozen people attending wanted to comment before he announced his decision.
Some former parishioners said they do not believe Murray should retain his pastorate and questioned whether he is truly sorry for his actions.
Richard Santmyer, a former member of the church who said he was kicked out for questioning Murray about the case, said the minister had insisted that he was innocent.
"He said he was guilty of helping others," Santmyer said. "I don't think he's learned at all."
Defending Murray, some of his flock told Waxter that they voted to retain him as their pastor over the objections of the church organization. They said leaders of the organization have sued the church on property ownership as part of the dispute over retaining Murray.