Priest who stole $2M from parish goes free after six months in jail

The Star-Ledger, New Jersey/December 6, 2006
By Jeff Diamant

A Rumson priest who looted parish funds to finance a country-club lifestyle of limousines, Broadway shows and Florida vacations walked free from a New Jersey prison last week, just six months into his five-year sentence.

The Rev. Joseph W. Hughes, who prosecutors said stole more than $2 million while serving as pastor of Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, managed the early exit through a state program for non-violent offenders. He was released from Mid-State Correctional Facility in Wrightstown Nov. 29.

The 62-year-old priest entered the Burlington County prison June 2. Four days later, he applied for entry into the Intensive Supervision Program, viewed as an intermediate form of punishment between incarceration and traditional probation. Hughes was later accepted over the objections of prosecutors.

"The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office strongly opposed his participation in the program at this time and communicated that objection to the court," First Assistant Prosecutor Peter Warshaw said yesterday.

Under the program's guidelines, Hughes must work full time, meet 20 times a month with a probation officer, perform 16 hours of community service each month and keep to a curfew for the remainder of his five-year sentence.

He also is required to undergo testing for drugs and alcohol at least twice a week. Violations could land him back in prison.

Hughes remains liable for the millions authorities said he stole between 1997 and late 2004, when he was arrested. In addition to the restitution, he also must pay the state more than $120,000 in back taxes.

Hughes withdrew so liberally from church bank accounts -- and lived so well -- parishioners in the affluent community thought he had collected an inheritance. A member of the Rumson Country Club, Hughes wore an expensive diamond ring, ate at fine restaurants and caught the latest Broadway shows.

His limousine bills ran to the tens of thousands of dollars. The parish unwittingly funded his winter trips to Florida. He bought a house, a car and vacations for the church's maintenance director, a man named David Rogers.

Neither Hughes, priest at Holy Cross from 1988 to 2004, nor his attorney, Michael Pappa, could be reached for comment yesterday.

Rayanne Bennett, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton, said Hughes is staying temporarily at a retreat house run by a religious order somewhere in the diocese, which covers Monmouth, Mercer, Burlington and Ocean counties.

She would not identify the retreat house or say how long Hughes will be permitted to stay. Bennett did say the diocese is giving him a modest stipend and plans to continue doing so even after he leaves the retreat house.

Though Hughes remains a priest, the diocese has placed him on suspension, meaning he is not allowed to present himself as a priest, wear a collar or celebrate Mass. He is not in line for a pension, Bennett said. There are no plans to have him formally removed from the clergy, she said.

Asked if the diocese has any misgivings about housing and paying a man who stole from parishioners, Bennett said, "We have to underscore that Father Hughes remains a diocesan priest, and some provision needs to be made for his basic essentials."

She said Hughes wrote a letter to diocesan officials last month, alerting them to his coming release.

The Intensive Supervision Program was created in 1983, intended to ease overcrowding in the state prison system. The program is primarily intended for non-violent inmates. People convicted of robbery, murder and sex offenses are automatically excluded, said Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the program.

Some 60,000 people have applied for the program since its inception. About a third have been accepted. State officials say the program helps lower recidivism rates and saves money.

Just 8 percent of those who have entered the program go on to commit additional crimes, compared with a 47 percent re-conviction rate for prisoners released directly from prison, state officials say. The program costs about $8,000 per offender, compared with the $34,000 annual cost for an incarcerated prisoner, according to the state judiciary's Web site.

In Rumson, parishioners had been divided by Hughes' arrest. Some were angry with him. Others felt sympathy.

Maureen Oberdorf, a longtime parishioner, fell into the latter camp. Asked about Hughes' release yesterday, she said only, "I'm happy he's out."

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