COLORADO: Former Episcopal priest indicted on 20 felony charges

Armstrong allegedly siphoned $392,000 from church funds
May 26, 2009

A former Episcopal priest surrendered to authorities May 22 after a grand jury issued a 20-count felony indictment alleging he stole $392,000 from Grace and St. Stephen's Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado before breaking from it and joining the Convocation of Anglican Churches in North America. If convicted, the Rev. Donald Armstrong, 60, now rector of St. George's Anglican Church in Colorado Springs, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Each charge carries a four-to-12 year possible prison sentence, with potential fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was released after posting $20,000 bail, according to authorities. The Rev. Marty Pearsall, priest-in-charge at Grace and St. Stephen's, in a statement released by that congregation, said: "It is always sad when a member of the clergy is accused of misbehavior. It is especially difficult when that person is someone you know and have worked with over the years." Armstrong has said he is confident he will be cleared of the charges."I am absolutely innocent," he said in a telephone interview May 26 from his St. George's office. "I can't really talk about this. The Episcopal Church is coming after me." Members of the vestry of St. George's Church had posted a statement of support for Armstrong on the church website expressing gratitude that "this lengthy investigation is now concluded and that we will, after three years of accusation, be able to defend our priest and ourselves from these untruths." Pueblo County District Attorney Steve Jones has been designated special prosecutor in the matter, instead of John Newsome, the district attorney in El Paso County where the two congregations are located. Newsome, who had attended and had served as a junior warden of Armstrong's church, had recused himself from the case. The arrest was the latest development in a contentious saga that began in December 2006, when Bishop Robert O'Neill of the Diocese of Colorado placed Armstrong, then rector of the landmark downtown congregation, on leave amid allegations of financial impropriety. Nearly a year later, "in the fall of 2007, following extensive diocesan and independent external investigations and a formal disciplinary process, Armstrong was found guilty by an ecclesiastical court on six counts of financial and ecclesiastical misconduct – including the theft of approximately $400,000 – during the time he served as rector of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church," according to a statement released by the diocese on May 22. "Armstrong was deposed as a priest of the Episcopal Church at that time and no longer serves in active ministry of this church." Meanwhile, Armstrong led about one-half of the 2,400-member congregation to split from the Episcopal Church. The group realigned with the Convocation of Anglican Churches in America, or CANA, a self-described mission of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. The breakaway group refused to relinquish the 135-year-old Gothic-style church property, valued at about $17 million. On March 24, El Paso District Judge Larry Schwartz ruled that the property was held in trust for the wider mission and ministry of both the diocese and the Episcopal Church and that once the group decided to leave, relinquished any claims to it. He ordered Armstrong to vacate the church. The two congregations met and reached an agreement for the transition. On Palm Sunday, April 6, the displaced Episcopal congregation, which had been meeting at the nearby First Christian Church, returned to its familiar surroundings. Armstrong and his followers formed St. George's Anglican Church, which has been meeting in an alternate location. Armstrong was also ordered to vacate the parish rectory, where he had lived for 12 years. While an official listing of the indictment was not immediately available, authorities had suggested that, among other improprieties, Armstrong had siphoned church funds to pay for his two children's college educations. Beckett Stokes, communications officer for the diocese, said in a telephone interview May 26 that the diocese "has not been involved in the criminal investigation into Armstrong's alleged wrongdoing." She directed other inquires to the proper authorities, adding that O'Neill, the bishop, would have no comment. CANA said in a written statement that the organization is praying for Armstrong, his family and his congregation. "It is with great disappointment that I learned about the indictment of Rev. Armstrong," said Martyn Minns, a CANA missionary bishop. "While I know this is a painful time for both he and his wife, I also recognize that this is a major step in Rev. Armstrong's journey to publicly prove his innocence." A trial date has not been set.

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