Woman embezzles St. Mary's funds

The former secretary of St. Mary's Catholic Church admitted on April 19 that she had embezzled at least $45,000 from parishioners to support her gambling addiction.

"No matter what you do to me today you can't punish me as much as I've been punishing myself," Karen Gilkerson, 52, told Hood River Circuit Court Judge Paul Crowley.

Gilkerson, who resides on C Street, entered a guilty plea to the charge of aggravated theft brought against her by the state Department of Justice, the legal arm of the Attorney General's office.

She was ordered by Crowley to spend 21 days in jail, followed by two years of supervised probation to ensure she obtains treatment for an addiction to lottery gaming. In addition, she will be subjected to a restitution hearing as soon as the church learns what the deductible will be on its insurance settlement.

"This entire situation is incredibly tragic and incredibly ironic," said Crowley. "It's ironic that we have a state where a lot of our budget is based on gambling, which one can understandably argue is a destructive form of raising money as we are seeing today."

Gilkerson had been church secretary/bookkeeper for 15 years.

The state's case was brought by investigator Steve Briggs after District Attorney John Sewell recused himself since he had a potential conflict of interest as a member of St. Mary's; he also wanted to utilize the services of state financial forensic experts.

Briggs said the state combed both church and Gilkerson's bank records and were able to clearly show that at least $45,000 had been "manipulated" from special accounts since 1998, the statutory limit for the investigation. He said it was likely the monetary amount was much higher since tithe collections had risen between $200-$300 each week after Gilkerson resigned last October.

The official investigation was initiated by Father Ronald Maag about 18 months ago after suspicion and speculation began to surface over financial shortages for some programs.

"When you suspect something, it's correct to turn it over to the right people so you can get justice for all," said Maag.

Briggs said when the investigation began Gilkerson pointed fingers at both Maag, who arrived three years ago, and his predecessor.

"She deflected the blame onto the Fathers for the theft she was committing," said Briggs.

However, Jack Morris, the defendant's attorney, said his client was having severe difficulty coping with the emotional fallout of her actions and was coping by using antidepressants and seeking counseling.

"Before the court today is a 52-year-old grandmother who has no prior record of any kind," he said. "What she does have is a gambling addition. To say that she feels remorseful about this is an understatement."

Gilkerson told Crowley that she had no ability to pay restitution because she had been fired from her retail position with Wal-Mart after the company learned about her guilty plea to a felony charge.

Crowley reiterated that it was important for Gilkerson to fulfill her treatment obligations and take some financial responsibility for her actions. However, he gave her until Monday to make temporary living arrangements for the grandchild who resided with her before she reported to jail.

"Your life right now has to be an incredibly lonely place," said Crowley. "It is hard to contemplate a much more serious breech of trust than a case involving the theft of money."

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