Lawsuit: PA Church Worker Stole $340,000 From Fund For Poor

Former Diocese of Scranton Worker Accused of Stealing $340K in Donations

Worker embezzlements schemes are at a five-year high as of the Boston-based security firm Marquet International's latest count, as AOL Jobs has reported. Indeed, 2012 saw the uncovering of 538 instances of employee fraud worth more than $100,000. Many schemes that began at the beginning of the financial crisis are only now coming to light. But amid such rampant employee theft, some cases still stand out for their shocking nature. Take, for instance, the charge being levied against 66-year old Sharon Warunek, a resident of Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Warunek worked for 27 years with the Diocese of Scranton. And over that time, she's alleged to have stolen at least $340,000 from the church's charitable donations fund, the money from which is handed over to a variety of causes for the poor. Warunek held the title of office manager at the church's Society for the Propagation of the Faith and so opened the mail and handled the checks that were sent to the office. She's said to have used the money to pay for monthly charges on a Discover credit card with "clockwork regularity," in the words of Pennsylvania-based newspaper, Citizens' Voice.

On Thursday, Warunek surrendered at the Lackawanna Courthouse and was charged with one count each of theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property. It's a "sad reality that there will always be individuals who seek to exploit and circumvent whatever system that is in place," Scranton Bishop Joseph D. Bambera said in a statement. Warunek's bounty may in fact be greater than $340,000; the statute of limitations on the theft only covers the last seven years. Officials estimate the amount stolen before 2006 to be around $80,000.

How did the alleged fraud get uncovered? In August, an official with the Diocese noticed a check for $6,000 was made out to a credit card the diocese had no awareness of. The investigation soon made it to the district attorney's office, which discovered 83 mysterious payments dating back to February 2006, as was reported by local television outlet WNEP. And the Discover card was allegedly under Warunek's name and address, according to the court affidavit.

Why would she have done it? Warunek was suspended without pay on Aug. 21 by the church. And on Sept. 6, she was fired. She's hired William Peters of nearby Clark Summit as her lawyer. He told AOL Jobs no comment was being made to the press as he still had to review the evidence. Warunek is currently free on $25,000 bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20, as Fox News reported.

Who's more likely to commit fraud in the workplace? As remarkable as an allegation may be of someone stealing from a fund devoted to helping the poor, the fact that a women is being accused is not. According to the Marquet report, nearly two out of three alleged embezzlers from last year were female. Why might that be? It seems women simply tend to have greater access to steal money, as they are more likely to occupy bookkeeping positions that have access to the coffers, as Chris Marquet, CEO of Marquet International, previously told AOL Jobs.

And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 90 percent of bookkeepers in the country were women in 2010, the last year for which information is available.

It should also come as no surprise that a religious organization was hit. One out of every eight schemes revealed last year was at a non-profit or religious organization, according to Marquet's reporting. Such institutions are particularly vulnerable because they "have very weak control systems," Marquet also told AOL Jobs. "They're not operating on big budgets that allow them to spend money on accountants," he said.
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