Priestin' Ain't Easy

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

Guinan was outraged.

In an October, 2003, letter to Palm Beach Bishop Gerald Barbarito, Guinan described the audit process as "demeaning." It sends the message, he wrote, that the diocese doesn't trust its pastors and that clergy should "grovel in poverty." Guinan pointed out that, based on his own research, if Catholic clergy reporting to Barbarito's diocese were paid on par with their Jewish and Protestant peers, then it would cost the church an additional $5 million a year. The clergy have earned and deserve the trust of parishioners, Guinan opined, before adding: "May I be so crude as to ask you to 'call off the dogs.'"

Diocesan officials continued to press for an audit of St. Vincent's finances, though Guinan managed to fend them off until spring 2005.

Tony Gleeson
A statue of St. Vincent Ferrer welcomes worshipers in front of the church sanctuary on a sun-drenched day.
C. Stiles
A statue of St. Vincent Ferrer welcomes worshipers in front of the church sanctuary on a sun-drenched day.

Just as nature renews itself each spring, the church invites faithful Catholics to make a fresh start this time of year. During Lent, the 40 days before Easter, Christians are usually instructed to reflect on the life of Jesus. For Catholics, it's a time for prayer and penance, as well as a time to give up a bad habit like smoking or gambling, maybe even for good.

It's also a peak time for donations deposited in collection plates. A single Easter Sunday brought $60,000 in donations to St. Vincent's, former parish bookkeeper Renee Wardrip told investigators; other Sundays during Lent generated $25,000.

Colleen Head, a striking blond who grew up attending St. Vincent's and began working in the parish office when she was 15, was 27 years old and still working at the parish in 2005. She recounted to investigators why she had come to suspect that Father Guinan was stealing cash. On three separate occasions, Head said, she noticed the church safe unlocked. She surmised that it was Guinan, who knew the combination but had trouble locking the safe, who was raiding church funds. At the same time, he seemed to be vacationing a lot and eating fancy meals. And the cash count kept falling short — about $5,000 short each week, Head said.

The clincher for Head came two weeks after Easter. Guinan, she explained, had recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas. He placed two bags in front of her that contained offerings from Easter. Head was confused. She thought that all those donations had been tallied and deposited just after the holiday, as per protocol. She had even finished writing the customary thank-you notes to parishioners.

Sifting through the bag, she saw that all the envelopes had been opened. Some had dollar amounts written on them, but no greenbacks inside. "He took all the cash out of the envelopes... " Head said, "so then I really knew he was stealing the money."

She reported the incident to another St. Vincent's pastor, Timothy Sockol, who then passed the information on to a priest above him in the chain of command, Father Gerald Grace at nearby St. Lucy. Speaking with investigators, Sockol described Head as looking "upset" and "tearful" as she shared her suspicions that day.

Shortly after Easter 2005, the diocese removed Guinan from his post as pastor at St. Vincent's. Parishioners were told that he left for "health reasons." The information flow might have stopped there, had the "concerned parishioner" not alerted the state attorney's office.

The official investigation hit close to home for some Delray detectives and police brass. Officers in the Delray Beach Police Department who were members of the St. Vincent's parish even discussed leaving the investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Police Chief Larry Shroeder, who attended St. Vincent's, told detectives he'd worship elsewhere until the case was closed.

Without public scrutiny, the church could have handled the situation internally, perhaps opting to suspend the priests from the ministry or simply order them to say a few Hail Marys.

Instead, the diocese went full speed ahead in cooperation with law enforcement officials.

Father Skehan was livid about the church coming after Guinan. Wardrip told investigators: "Father Skehan blasted everybody... Father Guinan is his friend." Father Sockol, she said, suffered as well. There's a brotherhood among priests. "His reputation amongst the priests is pretty bad, too, because he came forward," Wardrip says. "You know, because he had to clean up this mess. When you're honest and you come forward, you're a traitor."

Sockol is now head pastor at Emmanuel Catholic Church, also in Delray. Speaking with investigators, he explained how he mustered the courage to come forward: "A lot of what was uncovered was really, uh, discouraging to me... I have nothing against Father Guinan, he is a nice man. I think that if he has problems with alcohol, and apparently he does because he missed his masses often, I believe because of drinking, I think that he should have enough sense to go and get help for those problems.

"I have heard from some priests that this has been an ongoing behavioral problem with him, so why didn't the diocese at some point step in and say: 'Look, you need to go and get some help'?

"But my only concern in all of this is to get the money that belongs to the parish back in the parish, because I see it as, this money belongs to the parishioners at St. Vincent Catholic Church, who gave the money and give all they can. And the money was intended for the parish use."

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