Indictment Says East Side Priest Funneled $800,000 to Himself

New York Times/July 27, 2005
By Sabrina Tavernise

A Roman Catholic priest was indicted yesterday on charges of stealing more than $800,000 from his Upper East Side church, prosecutors said.

The priest, Msgr. John G. Woolsey, 67, is accused of second- and third-degree grand larceny for funneling church donations to his bank account, according to prosecutors, and then using the money to buy luxury watches, golf vacations and expensive meals.

He surrendered to the police yesterday morning, said his lawyer, Nicholas M. De Feis, and pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. If convicted, Monsignor Woolsey faces up to 15 years in prison, prosecutors said. Judge Michael R. Ambrecht ordered that he be released without bail.

Mr. De Feis said his client had never taken any money from the church, St. John the Martyr on 71st Street at Second Avenue. He said in a statement that parishioners had donated money to finance church repairs and that Monsignor Woolsey spent some of the money on himself, but "never in an amount exceeding the parishioners' intent."

Prosecutors said they began investigating after the Archdiocese of New York brought them information regarding the priest's financial activities. The archdiocese said in a statement yesterday that questions were first raised in 2003, when an executor of a parishioner's estate complained about large transfers to Monsignor Woolsey before her death.

Mr. De Feis said that Monsignor Woolsey had been a practicing priest for more than 40 years and that his parishioners - six of whom came to the arraignment - supported him.

"He may not have been a good bookkeeper, but he was a beloved, effective and honest pastor," Mr. De Feis said in his statement.

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