A Brandon judge has handed down a 22-month conditional sentence to a Manitoba priest who admitted to using a church credit card for almost $200,000 in private purchases.
Noah Njegovan was charged in 2015 with theft over $5,000 and fraud over $5,000. He pleaded guilty to the theft charge at Brandon Court of Queen's Bench in December, while the fraud charge was stayed.
At the time of the offence, Njegovan was an archdeacon with the Anglican Diocese of Brandon and was in charge of finances and bookkeeping for the diocese. Court documents say he had access to the church's credit card and online bank accounts.
"$192,000 from a church," Justice John Menzies said in sentencing Njegovan Tuesday, taking a long pause. "An organization that preaches trust and giving the benefit of the doubt … pays for that.
"This is a horrible, horrible offence," he added, calling Njegovan's actions a huge breach of trust.
Vegas trips, expensive hotels
Njegovan used a church credit card between January 2010 and Aug. 27, 2012, to pay for two trips to Las Vegas, flights, expensive hotels, meals and other items and services, the court was told Tuesday.
Court heard Njegovan charged $8,000 to $10,000 per month on the card, some months going as high as $15,000.
Crown attorney James Ross told court that Njegovan used the card to charge more than 800 different purchases of personal items and took $92,000 in cash advances, often late at night after using the card at a bar or restaurant. Another $23,000 was spent on non-business travel and hotels, Ross added, noting that card was used on two flights and two hotels on some trips between 2010 and 2012.
'It was wrong on so many different levels.' - Defence attorney Michael Cook
Ross told court that Njegovan spent $740 on dinner on his 30th birthday and that many bar and restaurant tabs on the card ran between $400 and $1,000. Another $25,000 was spent on massages, fitness memberships, hockey, limousines and other items.
"The church credit card was used for what are clearly non-business functions," Ross said. "This was a series of hundreds of acts."
The credit card had a limit of just $2,500, but Njegovan would withdraw money from the church's bank account and pay off the card many times during the month through online banking.
Ross said Njegovan stopped handing in his credit card statements to the church's finance officer after he retired, instead telling church officials that the credit card's balance was being paid through online banking. The spending went undetected until an auditor discovered the online transfers when auditing the church's finances.
Life turned around
Njegovan's defence lawyer, Michael Cook, said that while the crime was horrible, Njegovan has turned his life around. Now 35, he's married and again working full time. He no longer lives in the Brandon area.
Court was told that Njegovan would often take parishoners out for meals and other outings when they felt down or upset. Cook said the practice escalated as Njegovan's life took a downturn. His first marriage ended and he became sad and depressed.
"It was wrong on so many different levels," Cook said.
'[The diocese has] been rocked to the very core.' - Justice John Menzies
In December, the diocese said Njegovan had "relinquished" his duties with the church and paid back $192,000. Of that, $75,000 was to go toward paying the church's insurance coverage, the diocese said in a statement in December.
Court heard Njegovan's parents sold their house and lent him money from the proceeds to pay back the diocese. Njegovan, whose father is a retired bishop of the church, apologized Tuesday to the church and everyone affected.
In a victim impact statement, Diocese of Brandon Bishop William Cliff told court that while the diocese may never recover from the incident as contributions from individual parishes have drastically dropped, the church forgives Njegovan and doesn't want him to go to jail.
"We believe that he has suffered punishment enough in the loss of career, funds and reputation, not to mention the anguish caused his parents," Cliff said.
Menizes agreed to a joint recommendation presented by the Crown and defence. Njegovan must abide by a curfew, with the exception of work and emergencies.
"[The diocese has] been rocked to the very core," Menzies said. "People no longer want to give them money because people no longer believe they are capable of managing their money. They trusted you."
Outside court, Karen Webb, a vice-chancellor with the diocese, said church members are glad to have the case behind them.
"It's been a very long haul," Webb said. "We're talking five and a half years. We're very pleased that it's behind us."
Webb said church officials are pleased Njegovan won't be going to jail and hopes everyone can continue healing.
"We're hoping it's the end of it."