Until two years ago, the Roman Catholic diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., ran audits of its parishes only when they changed pastors. It was a risky, even foolhardy policy when you consider that a parish like St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, in Delray Beach, hadn’t changed pastors in 40 years. In September 2003, upon the retirement of St. Vincent’s pastor, the Rev. John Skehan, diocesan accountant Denis Hamel dutifully showed up to inspect the books and the procedures for counting Sunday collections. The new pastor, the Rev. Francis Guinan–a close buddy of Skehan’s–told him to beat it. But the new bishop, Gerald Barbarito, eventually ordered Guinan to comply–and by Easter 2005, after parish staff had come forward with what they knew about St. Vincent’s slippery bookkeeping, Hamel was left dumbfounded. “I called the bishop,” says Hamel, now the diocese’s financial administrator, “and I told him we had a tiger by the tail.”
It was an especially ravenous beast if the allegations are true. Forensic auditors estimate that Skehan and later Guinan misappropriated $8.6 million over 42 years. They allegedly diverted St. Vincent collection money to secret slush-fund accounts while living as hedonistically as Renaissance Popes. The police report says Skehan, 79, gave a “girlfriend” $134,000, made a rare-coins purchase for $275,000 and owned an oceanfront condominium worth $455,000. It says Guinan, 63, whom Barbarito removed as St. Vincent’s pastor in 2005, spent his take on expensive vacations to Las Vegas and the Bahamas; a $220,000 renovation of his parish residence; and payments to his own “paramour,” the bookkeeper of his former parish, whom he gave $47,000 for credit-card bills and her child’s tuition. Both priests were arrested by Delray Beach police last September–after Guinan returned from a South Pacific cruise–and were charged with grand theft. (They pleaded not guilty.)
St. Vincent’s may be the worst known case of embezzlement to hit U.S. Catholicism, but Skehan and Guinan are joined by a gallery of other recent alleged klepto-clerics. Last month a Virginia priest was indicted for allegedly embezzling $600,000 from two Catholic churches–in part to help support the woman and three children he had been secretly living with. Last year a Connecticut priest was accused of pilfering up to $1.4 million to pay for his Audi cars, luxury-hotel stays, jewelry for his boyfriend and a Fort Lauderdale condo. And last June another priest was sentenced to five years in prison after the misappropriation of $2 million from the Church of the Holy Cross in Rumson, N.J.