SIMI VALLEY — Before a single witness has testified, the collection plate embezzlement trial of Father David Dean Piroli has shaken the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is among the potential witnesses. Some parishioners have been dismayed not just by the charges against Piroli but also by his lawyer's accusations that the real culprit is another priest who wanted to hide his own embezzlement of $60,000 and homosexuality.
Diocese officials angrily attacked all of the lawyer's accusations against Father James McKeon, declaring them "a gross injustice." Judge Allan Steele said he will allow testimony about the alleged embezzlement by McKeon but not the homosexuality issue. Nonetheless, the tone has been set for a trial in Ventura that threatens to lay open usually private parish matters.
Jurors are expected to see ledgers showing the mysteriously shrinking coffers of St. Peter Claver Church in Simi Valley and Sacred Heart Church in Saticoy, the parishes from which Piroli is accused of taking $60,000.
On May 27, 1992, a Hollywood merchant's post-riot jitters led police to investigate his complaint about loiterers outside the Sears store. There, police said they found Piroli sitting in a Chevrolet Lumina belonging to St. Peter Claver Church with a man named Israel Palacios, $10,000 in small bills and small amounts of cocaine.
Los Angeles prosecutors dropped drug charges because the amounts were too small to warrant a case. Simi Valley police picked up the embezzlement investigation and filed the case with the Ventura County district attorney. The county's grand jury indicted Piroli on two counts of grand theft.
As the Piroli trial unfolds, jurors may hear McKeon, former pastor of St. Peter Claver, describe how he bailed an agitated Piroli out of the Hollywood police lockup after the arrest, only to have him disappear a few days later.
They will be told that while Piroli was missing, church officials discovered another $50,000 in small bills and parishioners' donation checks in his room at the rectory--although the judge said he will not allow jurors to hear evidence that gay pornography, fireworks and a switchblade knife also were found.
And they will hear testimony about the priest's arrest six weeks later at the California-Mexico border, where immigration officers told reporters they caught him driving in from Mexico with two illegal immigrants--one of them Palacios. However, Steele said he will not allow testimony that the men were found in the car trunk.
The judge said he will let defense attorney Richard Beada give evidence and argue that McKeon framed Piroli because he feared that the younger priest would blow the whistle on him. But Steele refused to let Beada introduce evidence that the lawyer said would back his claim that McKeon was seen at a gay bathhouse in West Hollywood and that the money was taken to finance a secret lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Peace said in court she hopes to prove that Piroli was fleecing his flock at both churches--he was assistant pastor at Sacred Heart from 1986 to 1990 and at St. Peter Claver until 1992--to finance a drug habit and his friendship with Palacios.
Peace secured the judge's permission to show jurors a photo Piroli had of Palacios clad only in swim trunks, although Steele said he will not let a police officer testify that Palacios is a male prostitute unless Peace presents evidence of a criminal record.
The revelations after Piroli's 1992 arrest and the counter-charges he made against his former superior have saddened his former parishioners, church officials say.
Piroli's former flock is ready to forgive and forget, said Father Dennis Mongrain, the new pastor at St. Peter Claver.
"The church is a community of human people, and we are all weak and wounded in our lives. We need God's help and his healing," Mongrain said. "When we look at Father Dave and Father Jim, we see a little of ourselves."
Parishioners seem to be praying for Piroli and McKeon, particularly in light of last week's allegations, said Richard Hamm, a parish deacon.
But because the priests are no longer with the parish--Piroli was suspended after his arrest and McKeon was transferred in June to a post as senior priest at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Westlake Village--the people are distancing themselves from the case, Hamm said.
"That's a long time in people's lives, and time heals," he said. "It's becoming the idea that this is happening someplace else and not to us as individuals. . . . It will be a real blessing when this is over and we can get on with our parish life."
Indeed, the church seems to be prospering in the wake of the scandal.
Parish enrollment is up from 1,500 families to 2,000, and the parish seems filled with new life, Hamm said.
"I think the church was in itself ready for change," said Jim Carper, president of the parish council. "What happened was shocking, but I think the groundwork has been laid for the growth. With Father Dennis arriving on the scene, it was like Shakespeare arriving at the Elizabethan theater. . . . I just think the time was ripe."
As for St. Jude's, Father McKeon's new parish, churchgoers were dismayed about the charges against Piroli and the countercharges he has leveled against their senior priest.
"I don't appreciate it," one parishioner said, declining to give his name. "It's not something I'd expect out of a priest."
"It just doesn't seem possible that one priest could set up another," said John Schmidt, a parishioner from Westlake Village. "You'd hope they'd be above that, as priests, especially for the children's sake. They don't know that some priests really do have feet of clay--they're more human than we'd like them to be."