Priestin' Ain't Easy
It all began with an anonymous letter from "a concerned parishioner."
There was a small matter of missing funds from St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. Would Palm Beach County state attorney Barry Krischer care to take a look?
By then the Diocese of Palm Beach had removed the church's head pastor, 65-year-old Francis Benedict Guinan, while it tried to determine whether he and his predecessor, John Skehan, now 80, had pocketed church funds, and the parishioner feared a whitewash from the diocese.
That was three years ago.
The investigation, which eventually landed on the desk of Delray Police Det. Thomas Whatley, has been a hair-raising revelation to the stolid parishioners of St. Vincent's. It wasn't just that a few bucks had been misplaced or frittered away at fancy restaurants. The parish allegedly had on its hands a couple of player-priests who may have misappropriated as much as $8.7 million of church money.
Amid all the normal routines of church business — visiting the sick and elderly, sitting for confessions, writing sermons, orchestrating first communion masses, observing the somber Lenten rituals, and leading the Easter festivities — Guinan and Skehan had been having a wild old time, authorities said. Parishioners were told that some of the money they had been dropping into the offering baskets during Sunday mass had gone toward gambling, extravagant vacations, race horses, oceanfront real estate, top-end home furnishings, gold coins, a pub in Ireland, binge drinking, and, yes, girlfriends for the priests.
Church members were astonished and shocked. These two seasoned, Irish-born priests had been leading unpriestly secret lives that defied belief.
Some were even amused at the vision of the grizzled Guinan and Skehan as high rollers.
"Did you see the mug shots?" asks 56-year-old Len Cava, a member of St. Vincent's since 2004, who blames all the widely noted misdeeds of priests on the church tradition of celibacy. "They look like a couple of Tony Soprano's lieutenants."
The two priests, who have pleaded not guilty to grand theft charges, have allegedly offered the investigators an embarrassed defense of their actions, portraying themselves as underpaid and overworked CEOs who sometimes awarded themselves and others bonuses. But they themselves were apparently stunned at the amount of money they were said to have stolen. Could they really have taken almost $9 million?
According to a statement from the diocese, the priests have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the case. Unless they reach a plea deal, both are expected to stand trial this summer on three counts of grand theft; each count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. If convicted on all counts, the aging Guinan and Skehan could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
They could also be defrocked. Or enshrined at Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.
Frank Guinan's reputation preceded him at St. Vincent's, where he arrived in 2003. Parish employees heard that he liked to gamble, that he drank too much, that a bookkeeper at his previous church was his girlfriend, and that he had a habit of mishandling funds.
In fact, it was Guinan's recklessness that apparently led to the investigation. Without his instincts for gambling and brash investment strategies, the siphoning of church funds, which had allegedly been going on for years, might have quietly continued, unremarked by anybody.
The technique that Guinan and Skehan allegedly employed was the seemingly harmless shell game that people who run neighborhood charities often use. Spread incoming funds around in satellite accounts to protect monies from heartless corporate bean counters while making it available for the worthy work being done at the grassroots. Nothing wrong with that. It's just the way charities and social service organizations have to operate, most people in the field will tell you.
The ladies who ran the office for John Skehan — a patriarchal figure at St. Vincent's, where he had been a priest for 40 years — had kept a few accounts and expenditures hidden from the diocese for decades. Some parish employees had accepted small cash payments and bonuses, under the table, from Skehan over the years. Whether they realized it or not, they were complicit in the embezzlement of offertory funds, investigators say.
Church staff felt loyalty to Skehan, even after he retired. But Father Guinan? He was rarely at the church, and he was far less generous with the extra cash — though some payouts initiated under Skehan continued. For example, Hilda Nataline, a bookkeeper who retired in 1988 and was suffering from Alzheimer's, got $675 a week plus medical coverage and a pension from the diocese. According to statements from several witnesses in the case, Nataline was said to have once been Skehan's lover.
Renee Wardrip, the parish bookkeeper at St. Vincent's from 1991 until November 2004, told investigators that she was absolutely aware of parish slush funds with seemingly legitimate titles like "Holy Name Society." She thought every parish did it. The idea, she understood, was to keep the money working for the parish rather than turning it over to the diocese. While Skehan was in charge, Wardrip said, she never suspected he might be stealing offertory funds for personal use.
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.
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.
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.
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."
With Guinan gone, the diocese launched an audit of the finances at St. Vincent's during his 20-month rule. The initial task involved sorting good money from bad. Several secret accounts in the name of the church were recovered, but plenty of money had simply been spent — though church members say St. Vincent's itself is on sound financial ground.
Among other things, diocesan auditors discovered: $446,249.22 in deposits made to accounts at Wachovia during Guinan's rule that weren't reflected in parish books; $1 million in a secret Smith Barney account in the name of the church; and another $2 million secret account in the name of the school. There were also six checks to Carol Hagen that totaled $43,000, plus $7,270 additional tuition for Hagen's son at Cardinal Newman; $53,325 paid to Hilda Nataline; and roughly $75,000 in payments to Frank Guinan and his credit cards.
When questioned by detectives, Hagen said that Father Guinan paid for her son's private school tuition for seven straight years; she thought nothing of it, saying she believed such perks were standard for children of church employees. She talked about how Guinan, Skehan, and another priest once invested in two race horses in Ireland and in real estate.
She recounted traveling to Las Vegas with Guinan on at least 10 occasions, plus trips to Georgia, the Bahamas, and Ireland. In Vegas, she said, the couple would stay at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, where Guinan would get special room rates for being a frequent visitor.
When pushed to describe her relationship with Father Guinan, Hagen said it was "no great love affair, trust me."
The diocese hired a forensic accounting firm to dig deeper, into the years when retired Rev. John Skehan led the congregation.
The ladies who had helped Father Skehan sort the church finances say they never suspected he was pocketing funds. They understood his feelings about the diocese, which he called "corrupt." They believed the multiple accounts and covert deposits were meant exclusively to hide wealth from the diocese.
They made several trips to the bank each week, careful to keep deposits below $10,000 so as not to arouse suspicion. If a bank teller commented on the generosity of church members, Skehan would switch banks.
Colleen Head, especially, had trouble seeing the elderly Skehan as a crook — even though she had glimpsed some of his darkest hours.
Skehan clearly had intense feelings for the young woman, while she thought of him as a grandfather. He doted on her, wined-and-dined her, even paid for her to travel with him to Ireland in the summer of 1999, when she was 21. It was on that trip to Ireland that Head got her first glance at Skehan's true feelings for her, she says. Head would later cooperate with detectives, going so far as to turn over a diary she kept during her trip to Ireland. She told detectives in 2006 that she had realized, by then, that she was "mixed up with a really bad guy."
In the diary, Head described how Skehan was jealous that she was spending so much time with his nephew Sean during the visit to Ireland. "He is obsessed with me, looks at me constantly, follows me around like a sick dog," wrote Head. "I Hate Him!"
"He came to me last night, was crying all over me, I was repulsed. I had no sympathy for the Pig, he can go kiss off... I know he has some sick fantasy about me being in his cottage."
When Head got back to Florida, she forgave Skehan for his dirty old man act. But, occasionally, he'd still launch into drunken speeches about how he'd leave the priesthood for her if he were younger. "He gets drunk and I'm the most beautiful thing," Head explained to investigators.
She said she often cleaned up after Skehan. Head remembered fetching the priest from bars when he got intoxicated and lecturing him once about letting a woman sit on his lap in a public place.
Father Thomas Skindeleski arrived at St. Vincent's in November 2005 from Our Lady Queen of the Apostles in Royal Palm Beach. He promised transparency and accountability for the 7,300 parishioners at St. Vincent's . He created a parish financial council that he said would have "real teeth," and he commented on the controversy in the church's weekly bulletin.
Parishioners whispered about the changes, and the alleged misdeeds. Then the story broke in late September 2006, grabbing national and international headlines. Police described Fathers Guinan and Skehan as professional money launderers who invested in real estate and took trips to casinos with girlfriends. Reporters swarmed the parish, stopping even school children in an effort to get comments from the church community.
Speaking with investigators, Skehan admitted to having diverted church donations into bank accounts hidden from the diocese. That way, he explained, he could eliminate bureaucracy by keeping some expenses off the books. Anything that he skimmed from the collection plates — by Skehan's estimates, perhaps $1,000 to $3,000 a week — he felt was deserved since, in his opinion, he had never been well-compensated. Skehan identified his chief indulgence as being rare gold coins. He offered to turn over $300,000 worth of coins to the diocese. (For the time being, the coins are in police custody.) He also confessed to having used St. Vincent's funds to pay a monthly stipend to a former parish bookkeeper.
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.
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.
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.
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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