BRONSON, Mich. (WOOD) — Every day, Rev. Richard Fritz walked past the Ten Commandments plaque outside his church. And, nearly every day, he walked across the street to the convenience store, workers there said.
Workers at the Viking Express store told 24 Hour News 8 said Fritz, who is under investigation for allegations of embezzlement, spent hundreds of dollars a day on lottery tickets, sometimes up to $500. They say he usually bought $20 tickets.
A woman at a gas station near his other church, St. Barbara in Colon, also said the priest stopped in to buy lottery tickets.
State police confirmed that gambling is the “undertone” of their investigation. They’re investigating allegations the priest embezzled $213,000 since 2010 from both St. Mary’s and from St. Barbara Church about 12 miles away in Colon.
He had been the pastor at St. Mary’s since 1990 and had done double-duty, also working at St. Barbara, since 1996. He has resigned as pastor, though he is still a priest.
Diocese officials say they’re cooperating with police and trying to determine if the priest had taken money before 2010, when records weren’t computerized.
State police said they are awaiting search warrant returns before sending the case to the prosecutor for possible charges. They said the priest is living outside the diocese.
Long-time parishioners and friends of the priest said they were shocked but not ready to pass judgment.
“I thought the world of him,” said Larry Ratkowski, who grew up across the street from St. Mary’s and had become close friends with Father Fritz.
“When they prove that it really was so and if things have really been proven then and only then we might believe it,” Ratkowski’s wife, Ann, said. “But it’s still going to be very difficult.”
“If he’s guilty, I feel it’s between him and God now, and what people want to do to him, I guess they’re going to do, but it’s a very hard terrible situation,” she said.
St. Barbara parishioner Gerarld Barnes said Father Fritz led him to the Catholic church about 10 years ago and had helped him through tough times.
“It’s a small community, but it’s really tight,” Barnes said. “It’s a really great community of people and Father Fritz has been really good to us. He listens to our problems.
He also is withholding judgment.
“I don’t think my opinion of him is going to change. I think he just made a mistake. Hopefully, he’ll be forgiven and he’ll be able to move on from it.”
Fritz was ordained in May 1975 and previously worked at churches in Battle Creek, Coldwater, Bridgman and South Haven. His longest appointment before becoming pastor at St. Mary’s was five years.
According to the attorney for the Diocese, Fritz admitted to writing himself checks but claimed it was reimbursement for things like medical expenses, vehicle expenses and taking parishioners out to dinner. He claimed to have receipts to prove these expenses, but the attorney says none were ever provided.
The attorney also said he found more than $80,000 in payments Fritz made to the church accounts, which is odd because it’s unusual for a priest to donate or tithe to his own parish. Further investigation found these payments were in the form of checks signed over from the Michigan Lottery. Investigators say Fritz was known to play the lottery.