Two priests accused of stealing US$8M from church

Money spent on trips, real estate, girlfriends, police in Florida say

Reuters/September 30, 2006
By Jim Loney

Miami - Two Roman Catholic priests allegedly misappropriated more than US$8-million from their church and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate, travel, gambling trips, rare coins and girlfriends, police in Florida said yesterday.

The retired priests were accused of skimming cash from collection plates and bequests to the St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach, Fl., over a period of years and channeling the money into secret "slush funds," Delray Beach police said.

Former St. Vincent pastor Monsignor John Skehan, 79, was arrested on a charge of grand theft over US$100,000 and was being held in the Palm Beach County jail on a US$400,000 bond.

A warrant was issued for the arrest of Father Francis Guinan, 63, on the same charge. He was on a cruise in Australia but had contacted the police, the Palm Beach Post reported.

"We believe that our investigation has shown that the two allegedly have misappropriated more than $8-million and have used it for personal use or for other purchases," said Paige Patterson-Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"Some of the things we believe were allegedly purchased included real estate, coins and travel," she said.

Detective Thomas Whatley called the two priests "professional money launderers."

According to a police affidavit, Msgr. Skehan invested heavily in rare coins, once buying $275,000 worth in a single day. He owned a cottage and a pub in Ireland, a penthouse condo worth US$455,000 in Singer Island, Fl., and another condo in Delray Beach, the document said.

The thefts took took place over a period of years when Msgr. Skehan served as St. Vincent parish priest and continued when Fr. Guinan took over as pastor three years ago, police said.

Delray Beach police spokes-man Jeff Messer said, "They were skimming cash out of the offering plates and other donations that came into the church. They were spending some on church projects and they were spending a lot on themselves, for vacations, buying properties, gambling trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas, and alleged girlfriends.

"We can prove several hundred thousand has been spent on personal use by each of them. They may have done some good for the church," Mr. Messer said, adding that a church audit covered more than four decades that Msgr. Skehan served at the church.

"These guys lived the life they told everyone else not to live -- and they lived it on everyone else's dime. And one of the seven deadly sins is greed."

The Diocese of Palm Beach said it started investigating allegations of missing funds around April of 2005, about a month before police launched their own probe following an anonymous tip.

A forensic accounting firm hired by the Diocese found that $8,690,593 was misappropriated during the tenures of Msgr. Skehan and Fr. Guinan, the police affidavit said.

It said a female bookkeeper at a Palm Beach County church with whom Fr. Guinan allegedly had an "intimate" relationship received US$47,000 from the slush funds in 2004.

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