by Ralph Routon
The Rev. Don Armstrong won't have to serve any jail time for misusing funds while he was rector of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.
That ruling came Friday afternoon from 4th Judicial District Judge Gregory Werner, who upheld an earlier plea agreement that gives Armstrong two concurrent four-year probation terms for no-contest pleas involving his stewardship of a Grace scholarship fund called the Bowton Trust.
Werner did order Armstrong to pay $99,247 in restitution to Grace for money that went from the Bowton Trust to pay for his children's college-related expenses. Werner singled out those funds because, he said, Armstrong had fiduciary responsibility over the trust as Grace's rector.
The judge also ordered that, during his probation, Armstrong will have to do 400 hours of community service outside his current church, St. George's Anglican Church. The 61-year-old rector also must disclose all of his current finances and is prohibited from managing the finances of any church or group in a fiduciary role.
"I do not believe jail time is appropriate," Werner said in his ruling from the bench. He cited "massive confusion" in Grace's record-keeping processes through the years, as well as the fact that lay leaders of the church co-signed checks for as much as $12,000 without questioning Armstrong. That amounted to implicit approval, in the judge's view, explaining why Armstrong faces no restitution for repaying hundreds of thousands in other allegedly misused funds that came from Grace and not the Bowton Trust.
Werner denied a request from the prosecution for Armstrong to write a letter of apology to Grace, saying such a letter would never satisfy everyone, "and I'm not going to go there."
"All of us feel this has been a painful episode in Grace's history, and we're ready now to move on," said Fr. Stephen Zimmerman, the Grace rector since November 2009. "I believe the judge felt constrained by limitations of the First Amendment."
About 40 Grace members, plus a handful from St. George's, filled the courtroom for most of the two-day hearing. After Werner's decision, the Grace crowd showed no emotion, while Armstrong appeared jovial as he left the courtroom to register for his probation.
"What's done is done, and it's over with now," said Clelia de Moraes, one of Grace's lay leaders. "But we don't want what happened to us to happen to anyone else, and hopefully [because of this case's notoriety] it won't."