Priestin' Ain't Easy

For a couple of Delray padres, the high life allegedly got in the way of their priestly duties

That perception changed when Guinan arrived. Nine months into his new post, Guinan was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Tequesta. He called Wardrip for help, instructing her to write a letter to a casino in the Bahamas to let them know that he wasn't able to make the trip because he was in jail. And he asked Wardrip to tell the casino that they shouldn't bill him for the rooms because he was a high roller.

Around the same time, Wardrip said, she realized that Guinan wasn't depositing cash contributions into church accounts, official or otherwise. She feared he was gambling it away, she said in her deposition. Then the lean summer months arrived, and Wardrip said she had trouble making payroll. She remembered having to "borrow" $25,000 from a festival account to cover the bills.

Co-worker Terese Duffey offers more evidence of Guinan's allegedly spendthrift ways. Duffey told investigators that one day that summer she saw Wardrip retrieving a box of cash hidden above a ceiling tile in Guinan's office. Wardrip, Duffey said, explained that she was storing the secret stash there because Guinan was spending all the cash he could get his hands on.

Father Francis Benedict Guinan poses for a police mug shot.
Father Francis Benedict Guinan poses for a police mug shot.
Father John Skehan poses for a police mug shot.
Father John Skehan poses for a police mug shot.

By the time diocesan auditors got involved, the amount of hidden funds went far beyond — exponentially beyond — the modest savings accounts of church social clubs. In fact, the unaccounted for money included more than $400,000 in a secret slush fund, $3 million in several church investment accounts, as well as several hundred thousand in individual disbursements to church staff, including $75,000 in payments for Guinan's credit card.

Church members were incredulous.

St. Vincent Ferrer sits just half a mile west of the sand dunes and mansions that hug the Atlantic Ocean in Delray Beach. The parish, established in 1941, is one of Palm Beach County's oldest.

It's a well-endowed church with several thousand parishioners. On any given Sunday, young white families and gray-haired married couples fill the pews. Many church members have Irish or Polish surnames, and all the services are in English. When the snowbirds are in town, hulking sedans with plates from states like Connecticut and New Jersey dot the parking lot, and a bounty of cash floats into the offering baskets.

The church's patron saint, Vincent Ferrer, was a 14th-century Spanish priest, whose motto was: Whatever you do, think not of yourself, but of God.

St. Vincent's longtime priest, the Rev. John Skehan, was born in Kilkenny County, Ireland. He was ordained a priest in 1952 and shipped out to Starke, Florida, where he served as a prison chaplain. He transferred to St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hallandale in 1959, and then joined St. Vincent's in 1963.

Under Skehan, the Delray parish flourished. Parishioners describe him as personable, fun, and charitable. With his rich Irish accent and diminutive stature, he reminded a few of the likeable leprechaun on boxes of Lucky Charms cereal. Plus, he had the gift of gab.

In 1967, Skehan kicked off the church's first St. Patrick's Day celebration, a simple affair to raise money for the parish school. Nuns would bake Irish soda bread to sell alongside linens and Waterford crystal from the old country.

In the late 1980s, Skehan helped establish a parish for Delray's large Haitian community. All masses at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Mission are performed in Creole. When sex scandals erupted in the church, he urged Catholics not to forsake all priests because of the transgressions of a few.

In 2002, hundreds of parishioners and a few dozen priests gathered at St. Vincent's to celebrate Skehan's 50 years in the priesthood. There, the Rev. Gerald Grace, from St. Lucy Church in nearby Highland Beach, compared Skehan to Don Quixote. Skehan never stopped chasing after dreams, and sometimes even caught them, Grace told a Sun-Sentinel reporter. Sister Mary Finbarr added that Skehan was a man of the people, recounting how he froze fees at the St. Vincent's school to keep it accessible for lower income families.

For some churchgoers, Father Skehan became like a family member who also happened to administer their baptisms, weddings, and funerals. He was a beloved fixture of the church, which made the allegations of theft all the more devastating for his former flock.

Skehan led St. Vincent's for 40 years and continued to reside in the church rectory after his retirement in 2003, when his friend and fellow priest, Francis Guinan, took over. Guinan, too, was born in Ireland and had worked in Florida for nearly four decades. Prior to joining St. Vincent's, Guinan was for 16 years head pastor at St. Patrick's in Palm Beach Gardens.

With the change of hands, the diocese decided to conduct an audit of St. Patrick's finances. It was that unremarkable event that led eventually to big consequences. Diocese officials found many discrepancies at Guinan's old church and, as a result, fired St. Patrick's bookkeeper, Carol Hagen. Among other things, diocese bookkeepers found that St. Patrick's had paid for one year of tuition at Cardinal Newman High School for Hagen's son, an $11,120 expense. Unsure whether Guinan had approved such payments, the diocese moved to conduct an audit at St. Vincent's as well.

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