Updated: February 25, 2011 at 12:00 am
A judge Friday sentenced the Rev. Donald Armstrong to four years probation for his no-contest plea to one count of misdemeanor theft of funds from the Colorado Springs church where he once served as rector.
Fourth Judicial District Judge Gregory R. Werner also ordered Armstrong to pay restitution in the amount of $99,247 that was diverted to pay for his son's and daughter’s college education. The money came from a trust fund originally set up to pay for the education of seminary students.
But Werner rejected a request by a special prosecutor to order Armstrong to repay Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church an additional $191,753 in church funds that also were spent on his children’s education.
Werner cited testimony by three former church officials who testified they knew of a deal where the church paid the tuition in lieu of giving Armstrong a raise for several years.
The judge also ordered Armstrong to perform 400 hours of community service not related to his current church and forbade him from managing the funds of any trust, business or legal entity.
Armstrong’s probation will run concurrent with a four-year deferred sentence he received in September when he also entered a no-contest plea to one count of felony theft. Unlike the misdemeanor, however, that will not become part of his permanent record if he does not break the law during that period.
While the sentence imposed Friday was less than what several members of the congregation had sought, several of them expressed relief they had reached the end of a series of legal battles that occurred when the allegations of misuse of funds first surfaced in 2006.
As a result of those allegations, the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado defrocked Armstrong. In March 2007 he started a new church. Many members of his old congregation now attend that church, St. George’s Anglican. A protracted legal battle over church property followed, with the courts ultimately ruling in favor of Grace Church.
“I’m very thankful for myself and the parish that it’s over,” said Elizabeth Lilly, a member of the Grace Church congregation. “It’s been a long four years.”
Prosecutors had asked the judge to consider jail time for Armstrong, without saying how much.
“I’m sure if church members had their way they would lock him up and send him to Elba,” said Pueblo County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Jones, alluding to the island near Italy where Napoleon was exiled.
Jones served as special prosecutor in the case because former El Paso County District Attorney John Newsome had been a member of the vestry, or governing body, at Grace Church.
Jones also asked the judge to order Armstrong to write a public apology to his former congregation, noting remarks Armstrong made after entering the no-contest plea in which he continued to maintain his innocence.
“It seems like there’s been no acceptance on the part of Mr. Armstrong to the reality of what he did,” Jones said.
But Armstrong’s lawyer, Dennis Hartley, told the judge that sending the priest to jail would only make him a hero in the eyes of his current parish.
“It will just deepen the hurt that’s the product of these lawsuits,” Hartley said, referring to the legal battles between the two churches.
Hartley also said he chose not to bring in a string of witnesses from St. George’s to testify at the sentencing because “we didn’t see anything to gain by getting into a game of who got hurt the most.”
Unlike Armstrong’s remarks after his plea, Hartley said this time his client had no comment.
Werner refused to order an apology, citing his practice of not wanting to get involved in how such a letter would be worded. He also agreed with Hartley that jail time would serve no purpose.
“There is a huge divide between these two churches,” he added.
Read more about the Armstrong case and other court proceedings at The Sidebar blog at gazette.com.