37-Month Sentence for Priest Who Defrauded Parish

The New York Times/December 5, 2007

By Alison Leigh Cowan

New Haven - Telling him, "Not even the collar can protect you from prison," Judge Janet Bond Arterton ordered a 37-month sentence Tuesday for the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, the Roman Catholic priest who admitted pilfering $1.3 million from the church he had led in Darien.

Rejecting calls from Father Fay's supporters for an alternative sentence, Judge Arterton told a crowded courtroom in Federal District Court here, "A sentence of probation would be impunity for a crime of enormity." She said the priest's crime was "enormous" in terms of the amount taken and its impact on parishioners and the public trust.

The judge also said that his argument that he should be spared prison because he had terminal prostate cancer and hoped to participate in a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan was not persuasive. She said the Federal Bureau of Prisons had hospitals and hospice programs.

The judge's decision was a somber ending to an ordeal that badly wounded St. John's Church in Darien and reflected poorly on the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport for not detecting the fraud sooner.

The priest's extravagant spending on luxury items, from expensive baubles to waterfront real estate, came to light in spring 2006 after a church bookkeeper became suspicious and shared her concerns with the assistant pastor. Frustrated with the diocese's handling of the matter, they hired private detectives to investigate and to report any findings to the authorities.

Both paid a huge price for that decision and ended up quitting their parish jobs under what they and their friends described as pressure from superiors. The assistant priest, quite popular with the parishioners at St. John's but chastised by the diocese for alerting outsiders to the problems, left the priesthood last year. Neither was in the courtroom on Tuesday.

"There's a great need in the church for openness and transparency to bring the church's practices into the 21st century," said Robert Mulligan, a protester who was outside the federal courthouse calling on church officials to learn some lessons from the scandal.

Inside the court, Father Fay was surrounded by supporters, including one of his brothers and a sister who appealed to the judge for leniency. "To say Mike must pay his dues, I argue he's paying his dues now," said Daniel Fay, a brother who lives in their hometown, Palisades Park, N.J. "A prison sentence is the same as a life sentence."

He asked the judge to consider imposing community service instead.

Between his guilty plea in September and the sentencing Tuesday, Father Fay dropped his objection to the government's calculation that he had stolen $1.3 million from 1999 until 2006.

Still, the judge sided with the priest's court-appointed lawyer, Lawrence Hopkins, when he argued that the government was double-counting in asking the judge to add prison time for certain breaches. That adjustment lowered the potential sentence to 37 to 46 months, from 46 to 57 months.

Father Fay remains a priest but has been stripped of all authority to perform public duties. The judge told him from the start, "I'm going to call you Mr. Fay, if you don't mind."

In court on Tuesday, Father Fay had blond highlights in his hair, a perk he used to charge to his parishioners, and his arm was in a sling, the result of a fall, Mr. Hopkins said.

When it was his turn to speak, the priest stood at the lectern and demonstrated why he was once a powerful voice from the pulpit.

He told a story about how Leonardo da Vinci had trouble finding the right models for his painting "The Last Supper." He found a model handsome enough to be John, but only years later found a "most disheveled, even grotesque" man suitable for Judas, he said.

The artist, Father Fay said, was then shocked when the grotesque man cried out, "Years ago, I was the model for John."

The priest said he was "deeply sorry for this whole situation," and added, his voice filling the chamber, "I accept full responsibility for my bad choices."

He continued: "Do not send me to prison. I am already in prison."

The judge said she agreed with Mr. Hopkins that Father Fay posed little risk of recidivism because of his age and illness. "On the other hand," she asked, "who would have ever suspected that for seven years you pilfered the offerings of the church?"

She dismissed talk that good deeds were sufficient to avert a prison sentence, and said she regretted that he had not done community service since being ousted as pastor of St. John's in May 2006. "The opportunity to provide community service is still available," she said. "In our prisons, we have many needy people."

The judge gave him until April 2, 2008, to report to prison, so that he could participate in the clinical trial if he was selected.

On one point, both the prosecutor, Richard J. Schechter, and Mr. Hopkins were in full agreement: The parish has little chance of recouping more than the $250,000 to $300,000 it had already collected from the priest.

"We do not think there's any great chance of his being able to do that in any meaningful way," Mr. Hopkins told the judge. "Whether you incarcerate him or not, any further restitution is academic."

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