Priest Pleads Guilty to Defrauding Parish

New York Times/September 12, 2007

New Haven — The Rev. Michael Jude Fay, a Roman Catholic priest with a taste for high living, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to federal charges of defrauding his parishioners of nearly $1 million from 1999 to 2006, when he was forced to resign.

The case involving Father Fay, the former pastor of St. John's Church in Darien, cast a long shadow over the Bridgeport Diocese when it was revealed in May 2006 because of the often lavish ways that Father Fay had apparently spent his flock's charitable contributions: travel for himself and a companion, limousine rides, parties, pieds-à-terre, jewelry, furniture, even blond highlights for his hair.

A forensic audit commissioned by the diocese last year detailed many of the abuses and found that Father Fay had misappropriated at least $1.4 million of the parish's funds.

On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty in Federal District Court here before Judge Janet Bond Arterton. Standing stiffly in a dark suit with his court-appointed public defender by his side, Father Fay, 56, said he generally agreed with the government's conclusions but quarreled over some details, including the amount he had stolen.

Now living in Florida in an ocean-view condominium he bought using church funds, Father Fay has been formally relieved of his ability to perform priestly duties. He remains a priest, according to Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for the Bridgeport Diocese, but court officials referred to him repeatedly as "Mr. Fay."t.

He pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud. In so doing, he also accepted government findings contained in a lengthy document outlining years of financial abuse. That document contends that Father Fay secretly opened two bank accounts, into which he deposited $980,000 in mostly parishioner funds, a majority of which he used for personal expenses. Among them were trips to Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Las Vegas.

The criminal complaint also notes that he used parish funds to pay for personal credit card expenses, and that he ordered a parish employee in March 2006 to transfer $34,000 of parish funds to an account he controlled, which he then used for a down payment on a Philadelphia condominium.

Pursued by reporters after the hearing, Father Fay refused to comment.

In court, when asked by the judge to describe what he had done "in his own words," he kept his statements brief and prefaced them with phrases that suggested that he was still unclear about the facts. "It's my understanding that I used church monies, parish monies for means and needs other than the means and needs of the parish," he said.

Sentencing is set for Dec. 4. Released on a $50,000 personal surety bond, he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, but federal sentencing guidelines suggest lower possible penalties, too, depending on the amount of money the judge decides was taken. Father Fay faces 37 to 46 months in prison if his lawyer persuades the judge that the amount was $400,000 and $1 million, or 46 to 57 months in prison if prosecutors prevail in arguing that $1 million to $2.5 million was stolen.

In a statement, the diocese said, "We pray that today's announcement will help the St. John Parish community put a sad chapter of its history behind it." It promised to continue pressing for restitution, efforts it said had thus far yielded a few hundred thousand dollars in cash, real estate and personal property.

But Cliff Fantini, 55, of Philadelphia, a close friend and frequent traveling companion of Father Fay's, said in a telephone interview: "I truly do not see him as a thief. I simply see him as someone who was guided and taught: 'This is what you do. You're in the town of Darien. You have to entertain certain ways in order to bring money to the church.'

"There's an expectation of lifestyle in a community," he continued. "They expect lavish parties. They expect nice gifts."

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