Behind the sensational headlines about a New York priest accused of pilfering church coffers to pay for an extravagant lifestyle – “Priest paid his male ‘sex master’ from collection plate: lawsuit,” as the New York Post put it — is the surprisingly common accusation of a trusted employee or volunteer stealing cash from a parish.
The Rev. Peter Miqueli stepped down as pastor of St. Frances de Chantal in the Bronx Dec. 13 after a group of parishioners filed a lawsuit against him and the Archdiocese of New York. They say the priest embezzled close to a million dollars over the last decade from two parishes, and that the archdiocese refused to take their accusations seriously.
Miqueli says he is not guilty.
“I look forward to my ultimate vindication, and being able to resume my priestly ministry,” he wrote in a letter read at Masses earlier this month.
Miqueli’s case is tailor made for tabloid coverage, but it’s hardly unique. This year alone, a number of high-profile embezzlement cases involving Catholic institutions have been made public. While the reporting to civil authorities has increased, resulting in more publicity about such cases, one thing hasn’t changed: Pastors are too trusting and unwilling to implement strict financial controls.
- In California, a mother stands accused of embezzling more than $400,000 from a Catholic grade school to pay for expensive clothes and tuition for her children. Adela Maria Tapia faces up to 14 years in prison for her alleged theft, which authorities say she used to pay off $60,000 in credit card debt by stealing from a school fundraising program she oversaw for a number of years.
- A parish in Ohio is out more than $100,000 after two individuals stole funds in two separate incidents. Jennifer Boggan was sentenced last January to a year in prison after being convicted of stealing $67,000 from the parish school where she volunteered as PTO treasurer. And police announced last month that Stacy M. Bowling, a cafeteria worker at the school, faces charges of stealing $45,000 from the school.
- And earlier this month, a priest in Michigan was sentenced to 27 months in jail after being convicted of stealing more than $500,000 from the parish he led in Troy, Mich., to pay for alcohol and gambling debts. The Rev. Edward Belczak pleaded guilty, telling the court that he had been tempted to live the lifestyle of his wealthy parishioners.
The cases are hardly isolated. A 2007 survey by Villanova University found that 85 percent of Catholic dioceses in the United States had reported financial misconduct in the previous five years, and the author of that study said he doesn’t think the situation has improved much.
“It’s better today in the sense that it’s more likely to be reported. We’ve gotten word out that this is not to be taken lightly and dealt with in-house, so it’s more likely to be reported to police,” said Charles Zech, the director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University.
“But as far as the numbers go, no. The situations that have led over the years to embezzlement are still in place,” he said.
He said the solutions are quite simple – appointing rotating groups of people to count collections, separating who counts, deposits, and reconciles accounts – but that pastors are often reluctant to implement financial controls.
“We’re too trusting as a Church. No one would think that a priest would embezzle from a church, that a lay worker would embezzle, that a volunteer would embezzle,” he said.
Zech said some kind of addiction lies behind almost every case of embezzlement, and he pointed to the Miqueli case in New York as an example.
“An addiction to gambling, an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or an addiction to sex. When people get themselves in a situation where they have an addiction they need to feed and there’s all this cash laying around and no controls, it’s very tempting” to steal, he said.
Canon law requires that parishes have financial councils, and Zech found in 2010 that 93 percent of US parishes report having such bodies. But the quality varies greatly, he said, sometimes just rubber-stamping whatever the priest presents, he said.
“They just go along with what Father wants,” he said.
In the Bronx case, the parishioners’ lawsuit claims that Miqueli, who as a New York pastor earns about $25,000 annually, stole donations in order to go on several international vacations, buy illegal drugs, purchase a private home in New Jersey, which he allegedly used for paid sex with bodybuilder Keith Crist, also named in the suit.
Crist’s former girlfriend, Tatyana Gudin, said she contacted the archdiocese in August, but the archdiocese says she refused to meet with internal investigators.
An attorney representing the group of parishioners said that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was made aware of the accusations but chose not to act, a claim the archdiocese rejects.
“What distresses me, I think, [is] the innuendo that the archdiocese is taking this with anything less than the gravity it deserves,” Dolan told the Post.
“We’ve been cooperating with these people. We’ve had a number of audits. And we’re prepared to arrive at a resolution within the first of the year,” he said. “If these allegations are true, they’re awful, they’re mean, they’re vicious.”
A spokesman for the archdiocese said it has been in contact since the summer with civil authorities, who continue to investigate the claims.
In a letter to parishioners earlier this month, archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling said that the archdiocese is continuing to investigate the claims, but has not been provided any evidence from the accusers. He said claims that Miqueli stole $1 million “completely false,” but conceded that the priest “had deficient management and administrative practices.”
Michael G. Dowd, the lawyer representing the parishioners, said that one of the goals of bringing the suit was to get Miqueli removed, which has happened, but said that the suit would go forward.
“What we’re looking at now are our chances of recovering what is missing from Miqueli,” he said.
He said he wants the archdiocese to hand over any information it might have about missing funds, because the parishioners aren’t sure how much is even missing, but he says he hasn’t yet been in touch with Church officials to make that request.