BRUNSWICK — The Rev. Bob Stec of St. Ambrose Catholic Church said Monday that the parish has been defrauded out of $1.75 million pegged for the church’s continuing renovations by internet hackers.
The church appears to have been victims in a phishing scam.
Stec said the church, located at 929 Pearl Road, had no indications of any issues until Marous Brothers Construction, who is completing the roughly $5 million renovation, contacted church officials regarding late monthly payments.
“We had no idea that this was going on until we actually received a call from the company showing us that they hadn’t received our payments,” he said.
According to a letter written by Stec to parish members dated April 27, the incident was discovered Wednesday, April 17.
In the letter, Stec said two church employee email accounts were unknowingly compromised, resulting in the fraud.
A police report was filed with Brunswick police that same day, a copy of which shows the church reported “the loss of a large sum of money due to a phishing email scam.”
Police Chief Brian Ohlin said in a voicemail Monday that the department is currently working with the FBI regarding the incident. He had no additional comment.
In the letter, Stec said “upon a deeper investigation by the FBI, we found that our email system was hacked and the perpetrators were able to deceive us into believing Marous Brothers had changed their bank and wiring instructions.”
Stec said it was shocking to hear that the construction company failed to receive payment from St. Ambrose for the previous two months, as it has always made prompt payments. Those payments were accompanied by bank confirmations that the wire transfer was successfully completed.
“The result is that our payments were sent to a fraudulent bank account and the money was then swept out by perpetrators before anyone knew what happened,” he said.
Stec said St. Ambrose is working closely with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, legal counsel and its insurance company to further investigate the situation.
Stec said part of what makes the situation so difficult is the generosity of the parishioners who contributed to the church’s renovation efforts that began last December.
The roughly $5 million renovation was funded through a combination of donations from parishioners, fundraisers and a summer festival. The outstanding balance of the renovation was unavailable Monday.
“First and foremost, what is devastating about this is our parish is made up of such good members that are just so overwhelmingly thoughtful, generous, and caring and have been so good in terms of supporting the effort to renew the church,” Stec said.
The news comes just a week after St. Ambrose celebrated the return to the church with a Mass on Resurrection Sunday. It was the first time the congregation was able to celebrate a Sunday Mass in the church since the Christmas holiday.
The congregation filled the brightened-up church, which now features a new altar and crucifix, in addition to expanded seating for 1,135 people, updated entryways and a new roof.
The church, originally built 36 years ago, was basically taken down to the studs and built back up again, the Rev. Rob Ramser has previously said.
Catholic Diocese of Cleveland spokesperson Deacon Jim Armstrong said in statement that St. Ambrose Parish is working with its third-party internet provider to ensure its email system is secure.
Stec said he believes this is the most significant incident of its kind to affect the Diocese of Cleveland.
It is believed that only the St. Ambrose email system was compromised, and the parish database stored in a “secure cloud-based system” was not affected.
Roughly four weeks of construction remain to bring the project to a close, including its front columns and entry, south entrance and chapel.
Stec said he does not want this unfortunate event to takeaway from all the good parishioners have done throughout the renovation process.
“Ultimately, we just don’t want anything that will distract from that,” he said.
“We just want to be able to let them celebrate in the good gift of God that they have given to this community.”