Priestin' Ain't Easy

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

One church employee fought off tears as she contemplated the possible wrongdoing in her parish and the prospect of losing her job should she comment by name. "What really hurts me is that, for people who are weak in their faith, this might have been the last straw," she reflected. "We could be losing souls."

The trial was scheduled to take place in February, but the case has been plagued with delays. The wait has been excruciating for members of St. Vincent's. There's a chance that the priests could negotiate a plea deal, according to a source at the State Attorney's Office who asked not to be named in print.

Meanwhile, the diocese hasn't made any public comments since 2006. Diocesan spokeswoman Alexis Walkenstein says the diocese doesn't want to influence an ongoing investigation. When asked how the church is counseling parishioners who might be grappling with a Christian desire to forgive the priests, Walkenstein hung up.

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.

Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, took a stab at explaining the church's dilemma. "The church is caught both ways. It doesn't want to come out and say a priest is guilty. It can be accused of interfering or prejudicing a jury."

So until secular authorities resolve the case, church authorities are stuck in limbo. "In the Catholic tradition," Reese explained, "forgiveness requires confession, repentance, and, to the extent possible, righting the wrong."

The source at the State Attorney's Office said the diocese has neither asked for the charges to be dropped, nor for authorities to go easy on the priests — the diocese wants the money returned.

"Priests have to know that they're subject to the same laws," says Chuck Zech, a professor at the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "For a while, churches were embarrassed by this sort of thing, and they tried to cover it up. Now they're more concerned about preventing future incidents."

In 2005, Zech and Villanova accounting professor Robert West sent a questionnaire to chief financial officers at 174 dioceses in the U.S. asking them to elaborate on the financial controls they have in place; 78 responded. Of those dioceses, 85 percent reported that they had detected embezzlement during the past five years. Nine out of 10 times, the diocese reported the incidents to police and filed insurance claims to recoup the losses.

Zech says that financial transparency needs to start with the diocese — "every priest I've ever talked to complains about the [diocesan] assessment. It's like a black hole" — and that parishioners need to take an interest in how their donations are spent. Otherwise, the Catholic Church could encounter huge fundraising obstacles in the future. "It's pretty clear that when folks fear that money is likely to be embezzled, they're less likely to give."

At a national level, a few lay people are organizing to help the church install checks and balances to prevent more scandals. Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management in Washington, D.C., explained that her group formed in 2005 in response to sex abuse in the church. "Deep within the Catholic imagination is the understanding of redemption. I look at the crisis the church is facing and I know that out of this will come some grace."

Back at St. Vincent's, some members worried that Father Skehan, who seems unable to detach from the parish he lived and breathed for more than four decades, might show up at the festival. Others wished he would. He's not supposed to have any contact with parishioners, Father Guinan, or any other priests. Several people attest to having been approached by him on church grounds.

But at this year's festival there was no sign of the little priest with the gift of gab.

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