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.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie