Priestin' Ain't Easy

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

Guinan, too, admitted to using St. Vincent's money to pay a former bookkeeper. And to having vacationed on the parish's dime. He said he regretted those financial indiscretions, and like Skehan, he'd happily return the funds to the church. So far he hasn't.

"I think it started out with good intentions," says Delray detective Thomas Whatley. "But those accounts got so big — that's when the greed kicked in."

After the news hit, the diocese swooped in for damage control. Bishop Barbarito addressed St. Vincent's parishioners at all the masses on October 1. He apologized for his fellow priests. He asked the parish to pray for the accused priests, and to not judge other clergy by their alleged misdeeds. "We are human and we are going to make mistakes," he said, according to coverage by the Florida Catholic.

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.

Peering into the pews, Father Skindeleski saw tears on many faces. He also saw expressions of anger.

Parishioners say now that they divided into two camps: those who believed the priests were innocent (particularly Skehan, with his long-standing relationships in the community) and those who believed there had been fraud. Those believing that the priests had sinned also divided into subgroups: Some wanted them punished and others thought they should be slapped on the wrist and forgiven.

Speaking with the Florida Catholic, Father Skindeleski said: "Healing is a long process. This is a good parish, fortunate to have fine and wonderful people. Our people love their priests so much that they put blind trust in them. Unfortunately, in these recent days, that blind trust has come to hurt them and haunt them."

While parishioners at St. Vincent's were feeling wounded, a small group from Guinan's previous post, St. Patrick's in Palm Beach Gardens, was feeling vindicated. In the early 1990s, a handful of members at St. Patrick's thought Guinan might be mishandling funds at the parish. Guinan dismissed them as "cranks" and then-Bishop Keith Symons denied their audit requests, according to the Palm Beach Post. (Symons himself resigned from his post in 1998 amid allegations of inappropriate behavior with boys early in his career.)

St. Vincent's parishioners are still loath to talk on the record about Fathers Guinan and Skehan.

The church is a family, church members say, and parishioners don't want to be ostracized for bad-mouthing the fathers. Even those with kind thoughts are afraid to have their names attached to statements. Talking might earn them dirty looks from other members of the choir, or cause them to lose leadership positions at the rosary society. More important, parishioners say, they feel detached from and uninformed about the investigation; they certainly wouldn't want to bear false witness, especially for attribution.

"The younger gentleman should go to jail — he's been doing it for years. Everybody that steals needs to be punished for it," says a 74-year-old parishioner who asked not to be named because she is active in a church social group. "If you put your hand in somebody else's pocket, you'd better expect to get slapped."

Others tend to stoically accept the priests' bad behavior, saying that parishioners gave money in good faith but that their own hands were clean.

One 69-year-old benefactor, upon hearing that $1,081 worth of shares she donated toward a building fund went straight into Skehan's pocket, shrugged, saying, in effect, if that's the case, then she forgives him. And she'll pray for him.

"It shouldn't be swept under the rug," she added. "There should be punishment, but I don't know about going to jail. If [Skehan and Guinan] were good Catholics to start, they're going to have enough trouble living with it. You're talking about sending them to prison for the rest of their lives. I wouldn't want that on my conscience."

Delray detective Thomas Whatley says getting lay people to talk proved a tough task for him as well. "Those witnesses are more scared of the Catholic church than they are of me," he says. "They're very fearful of what other parishioners think of them."

While not wanting to cast the first stone, many have apparently been dissuaded from speaking by Father Skindeleski's comparisons of members of the media with "vultures" and saying that the press was trying to "make mince-meat of our Church."

Father Skindeleski did not respond to requests for comment about how St. Vincent's is coping with the situation and about how he is counseling distraught parishioners.

The first weekend of March, St. Vincent's hosted its 41st annual festival. Over the decades, the event developed into a three-day affair with flashy carnival rides, lots of booze, and live music. This year, the festival was packed. Children piled into the baskets of a Ferris wheel and climbed behind the steering wheels of bumper boats. Adults served pizza, corned beef and cabbage, and clam chowder. A few priests tied on aprons to help in the kitchen, while others knocked back plastic cups full of watered-down beer. A nun was even dancing to "Mustang Sally."

Devoted parishioners manned the flea market, making sure that shoppers paid for their books, toys, and other castoffs. Others volunteered to set up or clear away the booths. The celebration had all the trappings of a sociable and vibrant church community. Yet when strangers mention the name Skehan or Guinan on church grounds, normally friendly faces turn stony and eyes narrow.

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