Ex-Treasurer of Episcopal Church Sentenced to 5 Years

From Religion News Service

Ellen F. Cooke, the former treasurer of the Episcopal Church who admitted embezzling more than $1.5 million from the church, was sentenced this week to five years in prison.

The sentence--stiffer than court guidelines recommended--was imposed by U.S. District Judge Maryanne Trump Barry in Newark, N.J., who said Cooke “systematically looted” the denomination and was motivated by “greed” and a desire for high-living.

The judge dismissed as “spurious” Cooke’s claim that a mental disorder combined with stress led to the embezzlement of what church officials said was more than $2.2 million.


Cooke, who now resides in Alexandria, Va., but lived in Montclair, N.J., at the time the crime occurred, was ordered to report to Alderson correctional facility, a women’s prison in West Virginia, on Aug. 26. Plato Cacheris, Cooke’s lawyer, said he is contemplating an appeal.

In January, Cooke pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $1.5 million from the church and failing to pay income taxes on more than $300,000. But in a 29-page pre-sentencing memo filed with the court, Cacheris asked for a reduced sentence “due to her diminished capacity.”

In dismissing Cooke’s plea for a reduced sentence, Barry cited a July 3 letter to the court from top officials of the 2.5 million-member denomination, including Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, which said Cooke’s embezzlement had a devastating financial and psychological impact on the church and greatly harmed its ability to carry out its mission.

Church officials said Cooke was living a “lavish Phariseean lifestyle” at a time when the church was economically hard-pressed, laying off national staff and cutting back on mission work.

While the church has “no desire for retribution and the imposition of more hurt on Mrs. Cooke’s family, it, nevertheless, is our collective belief that a lenient sentence would add further to the damages that we have suffered because many in both church and society are looking for a just and equitable end to this sorry chapter of our history,” officials said in the letter.

Cooke served as national treasurer to the church from 1986 to 1995.



In February 1995, the first signs of financial irregularity came to light. Weeks later, church officials discovered that $2.2 million in church funds was missing.

The embezzlement financed a lavish lifestyle for Cooke and her family. She is married to Nicholas Cooke, an Episcopal priest who resigned from the ministry following revelations of his wife’s embezzlement. He has not been charged with any crime.

The Cookes owned two homes and, according to court papers, spent thousands of dollars on extravagant living.

Ellen Cooke admitted that she stole church funds by writing checks on church accounts and depositing them in her own bank. She also used church funds to pay for more than $320,000 in credit card charges between 1990 and 1995, including $96,000 in airplane flights, $39,000 in jewelry and $28,000 in restaurant bills. She also used the embezzled money to restore homes in New Jersey and Virginia and pay the private school tuition of her two sons.

Over the past year, the church has recovered much of the embezzled money, including $1 million from an insurance claim, and titles to two properties owned by Cooke and her husband.

One of the properties, a Montclair, N.J., home worth $675,000, netted the church $280,000. The Cookes’ Virginia farm is still on the market for $850,000.

In March, the church settled a civil suit with the Cookes when they agreed to turn over liquid assets valued at approximately $100,000 and unspecified “tangible personal property of the church,” which Ellen Cooke had in her possession.