Vermont Town Split Over Minister Charged With Being an Impostor

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For generations, the ministers at the Congregational Church have been there for the people of this tiny hamlet--christening them, marrying them, burying them. John J. Weliczko was no exception.

For two years, the charismatic Weliczko served as interim minister, quadrupling church attendance. He moved on last spring to a permanent posting at the Timothy Frost Methodist Church in Thetford Center, 4 miles to the east, and was embraced there as well.

"He cared what happened to people. He made pastoral calls all the time, he was always there," said Bertha Brown, a member at Timothy Frost.

And he was always a fraud, authorities say. He wasn't really a minister, but that was the least of his faults.

Last June, state police began investigating a burglary in Post Mills, Vt. In August, the Methodist Church suspended "Dr. John." A month later, he resigned.

The state police issued a news release saying that Weliczko, 48, had lied about his background and had been cited on a felony fraud charge and for illegally performing marriages.

Then, at the start of December, he was arrested on federal charges that he had violated the terms of his probation on a 1988 fraud conviction.

"He left the church shattered," said Post Mills Congregational deacon Chubb Condict, describing Weliczko as "sort of a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde combination."

"He's a con man. He's very good at what he does," said Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Michael Jennings.

Jennings said he was called last spring by a friend of Amy Patterson, a member of the Post Mills Church, who suspected that Weliczko was involved in the theft of antiques from Patterson's home.

He said Weliczko is a suspect in that matter and had tried to cash a check belonging to Patterson after she died last June.

After police called, Weliczko's denomination began looking into his resume, said Arthur Hagy, district superintendent of the Troy Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes Thetford Center.

He claimed to have numerous degrees, including a doctorate and several masters degrees, and to be an ordained Baptist minister.

Parts of it checked out; others didn't, including his ordination.

"In no instance was I able to ascertain that he had been ordained," he said. "The ordination is more than a formality. It recognizes and verifies John's call by God to be a minister."

And as officials dug, other aspects of Weliczko's past came to light.

Jennings said Weliczko has been arrested in Texas, Illinois and Massachusetts on charges ranging from credit-card fraud to shoplifting.

In 1988, he was convicted in Chicago of "concealment of assets, bribery and false oaths and claims" in the bankruptcy of a counseling agency he operated. He was sentenced to a year of work release and five years of probation.

News reports of the case referred to Weliczko as a Glen Ellen, Ill., psychologist.

Still, Hagy said, "I say this very, very, clearly . . . I do not consider John a dangerous person. There is what we refer to as some 'confusion of boundaries,' what's yours and what's mine."

Asked through Brown for comment, Weliczko declined to be interviewed.

Now members of both churches are coming to grips with a betrayed trust. Many feel someone in whom they had placed the ultimate confidence, their spirituality, let them down. Others believe that Weliczko has been betrayed by the church hierarchy and unjustly accused.

After learning of allegations that Weliczko was not an ordained minister, some church members worried about the validity of the services he performed, especially weddings and christenings.

But Vermont Secretary of State James Douglas cited a Vermont law that says that as long as the couple acted in good faith, the union was valid. The Rev. Yorke Peeler, who was hired by the Post Mills Church last summer as the permanent replacement for Weliczko, said the same was true for religious ceremonies.

Many are reluctant to talk about the charges against Weliczko. There are whisperings that some felt he was not who he said he was, but no one is willing to talk against him publicly.

There are some, such as Brown and her husband, Elmer, who believe Weliczko is being mistreated by other members of the congregation.

"Some of the people resented his coming in and being popular and having people like him," Bertha Brown said. She said that Weliczko had been ordained by a small Southern Baptist denomination that was not recognized by the mainstream church.

Both Peeler and the new minister for the Thetford Center Church are committed to healing their congregations.

"We have assigned a very responsible, reconciling minister" to Thetford Center, Hagy said. "We need his maturity and you have to let time be a factor."

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