Nun gets one year in prison for Torrance school embezzlement

An 80-year-old nun who admitted stealing $835,000 from a Torrance elementary school asked a federal judge on Monday to show mercy and spare her from prison.

“I have sinned, I have broken the law, and I have no excuses,” Sister Mary Margaret Kreuper, the former principal of St. James Catholic School, told the judge. She called her crimes “a violation of my vows, the commandments, the law, and above all the sacred trust that so many had placed in me.”

Torn between parents and students who forgave her and those who demanded retribution for her theft of tuition money to pay for Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe vacations, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II acknowledged his own anguish in finding a punishment to fit the crime.

“I haven’t slept well in God knows how long,” Wright told a Zoom hearing audience, saying he could not bring himself to judge Kreuper solely on “the worst thing that she’s done in her life.”

Wright sentenced Kreuper to one year and one day in prison after telling her she’d been “one heck of a teacher” during her 62 years as a nun.

“You can be proud of that,” he said. “But somewhere along the line, you just ran completely off the road, and I think you understand that. At least I hope you do.”

Kreuper, who retired in 2018 after 28 years as the school’s principal, pleaded guilty in July to wire fraud and money laundering.

Prosecutors told the judge she deserved two years in prison for stealing parents’ checks to the school “over and over and over again” for a decade, then covering up the embezzlement by ordering school staff to destroy records. They also urged Wright to keep in mind that her status as a nun helped her evade detection, saying it should not keep her from facing the same punishment as a defendant with no church ties.

“Put simply, anyone who stole over $800,000 from a school would go to prison, your honor,” Asst. U.S. Atty. Poonam Kumar told the judge.

In a memo to the judge, prosecutors cited letters from parents and students at the school, including one from a 12-year-old saying the nun was “just like any other robber.”

When the Archdiocese of Los Angeles first confronted Kreuper about her embezzlement, she argued that priests are better paid than nuns, and said she believed she deserved a raise, according to the government.

Mark Byrne, Kreuper’s attorney, acknowledged that Kreuper “abused her trust” and that “people in the community rightly feel betrayed,” but called on Wright to sentence Kreuper to probation. For three years, Byrne told the judge, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have kept her under “severe restrictions” at a convent.

“She doesn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “She’s 80 years old. She doesn’t have any money. She’s obviously not employable.”

Byrne also cited an expert report finding that Kreuper was addicted to gambling.

“This is not an excuse for what she did,” he said. “This is merely an explanation.”

Wright said he was grappling with the possibility that conditions at the convent might be worse than prison.

“I couldn’t help think this is harsher than Club Fed,” the judge said.

After reviewing many letters from the school community, Wright said, it appeared most families had forgiven Kreuper and had no regrets about sending their children to the school.

But Phil Rhilinger, who with his wife, Debby, sent five kids to St. James, urged Wright to impose the maximum sentence — 20 years for each of the two crimes.

The couple sacrificed family trips and meals at restaurants to pay for their children to attend a Catholic school that would build their moral character, he said, but instead several of them now question their faith after Kreuper stole at least $45,000 from the family’s payment to the school.

“We need to send a message that embezzling and betraying is not OK no matter who you are, no matter what your age or circumstance,” Rhilinger told the judge.

Julija Garunkstis, who attended St. James from 2005 to 2014, told Wright about the fear that Kreuper had instilled in students there when they misbehaved.

“To know that she had been taking money from my parents and my peers’ parents the whole time I was there is extremely shocking, and it sways me away from the Catholic Church,” she said. “Trust shouldn’t be broken like that.”

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