DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Two priests have been accused of stealing more than $8.6 million in cash from the collection plates at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church to bankroll secret lives that included steady girlfriends, real estate investments in Florida and Ireland, and gambling junkets to casinos in Las Vegas and the Bahamas.
Retired Msgr. John A. Skehan, 79, was arrested on a grand theft charge Wednesday night at Palm Beach International Airport upon returning from Ireland. He was pastor at St. Vincent for more than 40 years.
"He was very remorseful," Delray Beach Det. Thomas Whatley said. Skehan was in Palm Beach County's jail Thursday in lieu of $400,000 bond.
Skehan's successor at St. Vincent, Father Francis B. Guinan, 63, is being sought on a similar grand theft charge. Police suspect he fled the country, they said Thursday. The charges against the popular priests sent waves of disbelief through South Florida's religious community, including dozens of politically connected parishioners at the Delray Beach church.
St. Vincent's is one of the area's largest and oldest parishes, with 3,000 members, and a who's who of politicians and business leaders. "I am shocked," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, whose husband, Kevin, is chairman of the South Florida Water Management District. "[Skehan] married us 26 years ago."
Parishioner June Hefti said "Skehan was the epitome of priesthood." Tears welled in her eyes. "It is incredible."
In a 15-page probable-cause affidavit by Delray Beach police, Skehan and Guinan are accused of skimming cash from weekly church collections to give generous payments to women, invest in real estate, and travel to their native Ireland and resorts.
Skehan used collection plate funds to pay for a Palm Beach County condominium, a $275,000 coin collection, a cottage on the Ireland's scenic Cliffs of Moher and a pub in his hometown of Kilkenny, police allege.
He also made regular cash payments to a woman, described in the affidavit as a "girlfriend," who once worked for him when he was assigned to a church in Hallandale, Fla.
During the summers when other priests were away, one former church employee told police, Skehan "would hide cash from offertories in the ceiling" of his condo, a 16th-floor unit in the oceanfront Connemara on Singer Island. Guinan, who was a pastor at St. Patrick's Church in Palm Beach Gardens before succeeding Skehan at St. Vincent's in September 2003, was described in the affidavit as a gambler who frequented casinos in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, and drew liberally from secret funds over which he had control.
He used church funds to pay for $15,000 worth of dental work, and also made cash payments to his "girlfriend," a former St. Patrick's bookkeeper, according to the affidavit.
He also wrote checks totaling $7,270 to pay tuition for his girlfriend's son at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach. Known for his lavish lifestyle, Guinan also has a reputation as a partyer not loath to take a drink, church employees and parishioners told investigators.
In 2004, he was arrested for driving under the influence, records show.
Public records show he owns several properties, including a home in Port St. Lucie and a Juno Beach condo. The charges of grand theft lodged against the two priests represent the latest in a series of scandals that have shaken the Palm Beach Diocese over the past few years, the most serious of which involved allegations of sexual abuse that led to the resignations of two bishops.
In a news conference Thursday, Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito -- named to the post in 2003 with a mandate to bring calm to the diocese -- said the charges against Skehan and Guinan "give rise to grave concern and possible feelings of betrayal and anger."
He said both men had been placed on administrative leave and suspended from duties.
Attorney Ken Johnson, representing Skehan, told the Associated Press that police had exaggerated the alleged theft.
"My reading of the probable-cause affidavit indicates that the amount of money he's actually accused of misappropriating amounts to about $325,000, which is a far cry from $8.6 million," he said.
The investigation into the church finances dates back to September 2003, when Skehan retired and Guinan was named to replace him.
According to diocesan financial administrator Denis Hamel, Guinan, along with a St. Vincent bookkeeper identified as the priest's girlfriend, tried to block a routine audit done to coincide with the change in leadership.
Hamel told police that Guinan, the bookkeeper and other employees familiar with the offertory refused to cooperate and sought attorneys.
But it was not until after an anonymous letter, alleging financial shenanigans at St. Vincent, was sent to the Palm Beach County state attorney in April 2005 that church officials began to talk to Delray Beach police about the suspected thefts.
The affidavit suggests that several others involved in the church's regular Monday morning count of the Sunday offertory may have shared in embezzled funds, as they skimmed cash for the donations and funneled it into slush funds.
Police said more arrests were possible.
Both priests, friends for some 30 years, are accused of directing staffers to make bank deposits in amounts of less than $10,000 to avoid notice and detection.
Former bookkeepers described to police a scheme in which the priests often set up new bank accounts or wrote checks for nonexistent construction projections to cover up their thefts.
Det. Thomas Whatley called the two priests "professional money launderers."