Police are investigating a suspected embezzlement at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa that members said totaled $500,000.
The alleged theft was announced to congregants following Sunday services on Sept. 11 for the Occidental Road center, which has about 1,000 members.
"It's very sad," said Norma Miller, a 20-year member who heard the announcement along with several hundred others from senior minister Edward Viljoen. "If people would follow what the faith says it would be wonderful. But people won't do that."
Police have yet to name a suspect, but confirmed that an investigation is underway. Det. Mike Lazzarini of the Santa Rosa police property crimes unit said information has been forwarded to the district attorney's office for possible filing of charges.
Lazzarini would not discuss details or confirm an amount believed to have been stolen but said it will generate "a lot of community interest" when it is released.
"It's under investigation," Lazzarini said. "There is an embezzlement that has occurred at the church."
Viljoen did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week and last week. Chief operating officer Jan Davis also declined to discuss it, as have several board members.
Miller said Viljoen and board members discussed the theft in detail with members. She said the money was stolen by a well-known employee over a period of time.
The person was writing checks to herself, Miller said. It was discovered when two board members became suspicious, she said.
"It seems to happen to a lot of non-profits these days," said Miller, who organizes the senior spirit group. "It's unbelievable."
The center is part of a little-known religious movement called New Thought and is located in a former roller skating rink.
It is one of 400 congregations with an estimated international membership of 250,000 under the banner of the United Centers for Spiritual Living based in Golden, Colo.
The Santa Rosa group was chartered in 1954 as the Church of Religious Science. It moved to its current location in 1997.
Donations account for 70 percent of an annual budget of $1.2 million, Viljoen said in an interview last year. Book sales and fees from classes generate additional revenue.
Miller said despite the loss, the center will survive.
"We're OK," she said. "The church can continue."
It is the latest in a string of cases involving alleged embezzlement on the North Coast this year.
Earlier this month in Lake County, the chairwoman of the Robinson Rancheria, Tracey Avila, 50, was arrested on charges she embezzled $61,000 from a neighboring tribe while she was a bookkeeper there.
Sheila Accornero, 42 of Cloverdale, was arrested in August on charges she stole nearly $400,000 from the Santa Rosa charter school, Kids Street Learning Center. Police said the former business manager took the money over 2-1/2 years.
Also in August, former Healdsburg youth soccer league president Kyle Hoffman, 38, was sentenced to a year in jail for embezzling more than $58,000 from the club. He was denied probation after he failed to repay about half of the money.
In March, former Exchange Bank administrative assistant Vanessa Outlaw, 31, pleaded no contest to embezzling $215,000 from the institution over a 20-month period. She was facing three years in prison.