Former Ukrainian Orthodox priest charged with exploiting a parishioner; she was a Nazi prison camp survivor

Author: David Jackson
Date Published: 10/25/2018
Nicholas Chervyatiuk has been charged with theft and financial exploitation of Nelly Bridgeman, a longtime member of his Holy Patronage Church in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. (Cook County Department of Corrections)
Nicholas Chervyatiuk has been charged with theft and financial exploitation of Nelly Bridgeman, a longtime member of his Holy Patronage Church in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. (Cook County Department of Corrections)
Now 96, Nelly Bridgeman is living in a Morton Grove nursing home. (Cook County Public Guardian's Office)
Now 96, Nelly Bridgeman is living in a Morton Grove nursing home. (Cook County Public Guardian's Office)

A former Ukrainian Orthodox priest was charged this week with stealing more than $330,000 from one of his trusting parishioners, a 96-year-old Nazi prison camp survivor who has dementia.

Nicholas Chervyatiuk, 57, faces felony charges of theft and financial exploitation of an elderly person with a disability on allegations he drained the savings of Nelly Bridgeman, a longtime member of his Holy Patronage Church in Humboldt Park. If convicted he could face up to 15 years in prison.

Bail was set Thursday at $5,000 with electronic monitoring, and he has 48 hours to surrender his passport if he does post bail, according to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

The allegations stem from a 2016 probate court case in which the Cook County public guardian alleged that Chervyatiuk was using 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.

At the time, Chervyatiuk was defiant about his use of Bridgeman’s money, saying in a probate court examination that year that he considered the money to be payment for care he provided to Bridgeman as her health and mental faculties failed.

“I think it was time for me to get paid. … Nelly wanted it that way,” he testified.

After an August 2016 Tribune report on the case, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, one of three major Orthodox groups in Ukraine, removed Chervyatiuk from the clergy and barred him from serving as a priest.

Chervyatiuk in 2016 denied any wrongdoing during a sworn probate court examination and in a separate Tribune interview.

Bridgeman, now 96 and living in a suburban nursing home, was said to be “delighted that Father Chervyatiuk is in jail and can’t hurt others the way he hurt her,” said Dawn Lawkowski-Keller, chief of the public guardian’s financial recovery unit.

“She has been so worried about her money and having him go unpunished for his crimes,” Lawkowski-Keller said. “Nelly certainly never wants to see him ever again and feels he is going to get what he deserves.”

Public Guardian Charles Golbert said the criminal charges add to a sense of justice for Bridgeman.

“This was an egregious case of financial abuse by a priest who was in a unique position of trust and authority over an elderly parishioner with dementia,” Golbert said.

“While it was satisfying for our office to obtain financial recovery in civil litigation, I am pleased that the state’s attorney’s office has pursued criminal charges and won an indictment. Complete justice requires both civil recovery of the money stolen and strong criminal penalties.”

A Nazi prison camp refugee and native of Ukraine, Bridgeman married an American service member after arriving in the U.S. in 1950. She served for more than two decades as secretary of Chervyatiuk’s church, court records show. Her husband died in 2004 at age 79, and the couple had no children.

Chervyatiuk assumed power of attorney over Bridgeman’s affairs in 2015, when she was diagnosed with dementia and he moved her into a nursing home, records show.

In the following months, he began cashing CDs of Bridgeman’s worth $170,000 and then transferred other funds to accounts he alone controlled, according to probate court records filed by the public guardian.

Chervyatiuk in his 2016 court examination acknowledged signing his name to her reparation checks from the German government.

In 2015, an officer at one of Bridgeman’s banks grew suspicious about Chervyatiuk’s withdrawals from her accounts and alerted the public guardian’s office.

The public guardian managed to freeze Chervyatiuk’s bank accounts that contained Bridgeman’s money. But in 2016, Chervyatiuk went into one bank, identified himself as Bridgeman’s grandson and persuaded that bank to lift the freeze so he could take out an additional $60,000, according to a “factual proffer” filed in court Wednesday by prosecutors.

While the state’s attorney’s office was pursuing a criminal investigation, Chervyatiuk reached a settlement with the public guardian in which he agreed to pay back about $325,000 of the money he’d taken from Bridgeman’s accounts, immediately turning over $200,000 and also making payments of $3,125 per month. The public guardian has been using that money for Bridgeman’s care.

Meanwhile, Chervyatiuk continued to travel internationally. Using a Ukranian passport under the name Nikolai Tchervatiouk, he acknowledged traveling to Ukraine at least twice a year and wiring money there, according to the written proffer from Assistant State’s Attorney Denise Tomasek.

dyjackson@chicagotribune.com

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