Chicago priest accused of taking $500,000 from parishioner with dementia
Standing before the religious icons that line his Ukrainian Orthodox church in Humboldt Park, the Rev. Nicholas Chervyatiuk has ministered to
followers who arrived in Chicago as refugees after surviving Nazi Germany’s prison camps.
Now the Cook County public guardian is accusing the priest of improperly taking more than $500,000 from the savings of one of those displaced persons, a 93-year-old former church secretary diagnosed with dementia.
Chervyatiuk has not been charged with a crime, and he denied any wrongdoing during a sworn probate court examination and in a Tribune interview.
He says Nelly Bridgeman wanted him to have her money, which he saw as payment for the care he provided as her health and mental faculties failed.
“It’s for my work,” Chervyatiuk testified during the court examination. “It was for 14 years and I think it was time for me to get paid. … Nelly wanted it that way.”
He told the Tribune he estimated those services were worth “about $25,000 per year.”
Chervyatiuk, 55, allegedly used Bridgeman’s money to support two restaurants he ran with a convicted drug dealer, his Brash & Sassy Inc. hair salon and his portfolio of Chicago-area rental properties, according to probate court papers and separate land, business and court records.
He has held power of attorney over Bridgeman’s affairs since March 2015, when she was diagnosed with dementia and moved into a nursing home, records show.
Public guardian Robert Harris said: “It’s another example of how elderly people get ripped off by the most trusted people.”
The priest’s private attorney, Dmytro Kurywczak, said Chervyatiuk “is working with the Office of the Public Guardian to come up with some kind of a resolution that will be in the best interests of Nelly Bridgeman.”
Chervyatiuk’s Holy Patronage Church, at 900 N. Washtenaw Ave., is part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, one of three major Orthodox groups in that country.
A North American church leader, the Rev. Victor Poliarny, told the Tribune it was “not acceptable” for a priest to take a parishioner’s funds in a private transaction. Church authorities are seeking “official documents substantiating the accusation,” Poliarny said. “Once we secure the official documents regarding this matter, the higher authority of the Kyiv Patriarchate will ensure proper punitive measures for the alleged behavior.”
A native of Ukraine, Bridgeman had been a German World War II prisoner, and Chervyatiuk in his court examination acknowledged signing his name
to her reparation checks from the German government.
In the court examination, Chervyatiuk said: “It belonged to me, everything. She knew that and she told it to everyone.”
Suspecting fraud, a bank official in December contacted the public guardian’s office. In March, Associate Cook County Judge Shauna Boliker authorized the office to gather financial records and determine how much of Bridgeman’s money Chervyatiuk spent on her care and how much he
allegedly converted for his own use.
The agency, which now is Bridgeman’s legal guardian, says it will seek court permission to recover any funds wrongly converted by Chervyatiuk.
As the probate case proceeds, Boliker has ordered financial institutions to freeze $170,000 of the priest’s personal and business bank accounts.
At the public guardian’s request, a doctor this year examined Bridgeman and determined she “was totally incapable of making financial and personal decisions.”
After coming to America in 1950, Bridgeman married a U.S. service member and would serve for more than two decades as secretary of Chervyatiuk’s
church, court records show. Her husband died in 2004 at 79. The couple had no children.
“In church I was her priest and at home I was her beloved son,” Chervyatiuk testified during the June 24 probate court examination. Chervyatiuk was born in Germany and raised in Ukraine, he said.
During the past five years, Bridgeman had been unable to cook, wash or shop for herself, Chervyatiuk said. “She kept a lot of stuff in the house. So you couldn’t really walk in the house. You had to find a path,” he said.
In March 2015, Bridgeman fell and injured a hip, records show. At the hospital she was diagnosed with dementia. Chervyatiuk then placed her in a Chicago nursing home, records show.
A day later, Chervyatiuk met with Bridgeman and lawyer Julian Kulas at the nursing facility and Kulas drafted papers that gave Chervyatiuk power of attorney for Bridgeman, according to the public guardian.
“That power of attorney made him responsible to use her money for her good and in her best interest, and not for himself,” Harris said.
Kulas’ son, Paul Kulas, is acting as his father’s attorney in the case and said there was no improper conduct on Kulas’ part. Kulas is “cooperating fully” with the public guardian and the court, his son said.
In the next 12 months, Chervyatiuk cashed in two CDs worth $170,000 and transferred other funds to accounts he alone controlled, probate court records filed by the public guardian allege. Chervyatiuk used his legal status to control Bridgeman’s accounts, worth at least $540,000 and perhaps as much as $625,000, according to the public guardian.
During that period, Chervyatiuk put at least $22,000 of Bridgeman’s funds into two restaurants he ran with Alban Tase, 41. He also directly gave Tase two checks from Bridgeman’s account totaling $6,500, probate court records show.
Tase pleaded guilty in 2010 to federal drug conspiracy charges after an undercover operative met with him in a Chicago nightclub and steakhouse to trade shipments of stolen cigarettes for Ecstasy pills.
He was among more than a dozen defendants convicted as part of a global Balkan crime operation that laundered money and trafficked in heroin, guns and contraband consumer goods, federal court records show.
Authorities tracked the crime ring’s deals from New Jersey to Canada, then the Netherlands, Albania and regions of Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo.
Tase completed three years of supervised release in May following a federal prison term that is not specified in public records. Attempts to reach him for comment were not successful.
In Chervyatiuk’s June 24 examination, he said Tase was his business partner in two Chicago-area pancake house restaurants, both since closed. Chervyatiuk said he did not know Tase was a convicted felon.
“I just know one thing. He stole money from me too, and I don’t know where he is,” Chervyatiuk testified.
Chervyatiuk later told the Tribune that Tase was involved with only one of the pancake houses.
Chervyatiuk also wired thousands of dollars to a Western Union office in Ukraine, authorizing local contacts to pick up the money, records show.
“We were helping the church,” Chervyatiuk said, adding that the funds were for an iconostasis — one of the panels of icons and religious paintings that adorn Eastern Orthodox churches.
Asked in the court examination if the money wasn’t instead spent on the Ukrainian-Russian military conflict, Chervyatiuk said: “I don’t really want to talk about it now.”
In the case of one $26,000 Bridgeman check, Chervyatiuk testified: “I don’t recall what I did with that, possibly for my own things.”
One of Bridgeman’s home health care aides allegedly told the public guardian that Bridgeman sometimes seemed confused and treated Chervyatiuk like her deceased husband.
The aide said she saw Chervyatiuk pretend to be Bridgeman’s husband and kiss her on the lips, according to court papers filed by the public guardian.
Chervyatiuk also took title to land Bridgeman had owned in Texas, saying in his court examination that Bridgeman gave him the property. “One day
she did a surprise to me. She took me to a restaurant and gave me those papers,” he said.
Bridgeman was not the only parishioner who gave Chervyatiuk large personal gifts, records show. Another church follower, Maria Lewczenko, died in December at 93 and made him executor of her estate with $20,000 in accounts and $100,000 in real estate.
Chervyatiuk declined to discuss that matter with the Tribune, saying only: “I had many women who I tried to help.”