Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fla. priest guilty in church embezzlement case

A jury convicted a Florida priest on Monday of stealing from his church, but the panel found that he embezzled far less than the $488,000 prosecutors charged.

The Rev. Francis Guinan, 66, was found guilty of second-degree grand theft of more than $20,000 but less than $100,000 after less than four hours of jury deliberations.

Prosecutors claimed the clergyman from St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach used the money to fund a lavish lifestyle that included trips to the Bahamas and Las Vegas, jewelry and home furniture.

Guinan faces up to 15 years in prison and will remain jailed until his March 25 sentencing. He had been charged with first-degree grand theft, which carried a sentence of up to 30 years.

Guinan was accused of taking the money during the 19 months after he became pastor in September 2003.

The priest that preceded Guinan at the church pleaded guilty to first-degree grand theft last month. The Rev. John Skehan, 81, who had been at the church for 40 years, is set to be sentenced next month for taking $370,000.

Prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments that Guinan took money from a "slush fund," had records shredded and deceived his parishioners' trust.

Guinan "stole from the community he was appointed to protect," prosecutor Preston Mighdoll said.

Defense attorney Richard Barlow told jurors that Guinan's actions may have been morally wrong, but he did nothing illegal.

"The diocese, in their own rules ... gave the priest the unlimited discretion, without defining it, without restricting it, as to how you spend" the church's money, Barlow said.

Guinan testified last week that he believed a priest could spend as much as $50,000 on any one item without reporting it to the diocese.

Guinan said it was "a small compensation" for his service, but he acknowledged, "When you see it all together in one package, it looks terrible. I will agree with that."

Prosecutors claimed Guinan used church money on seven trips to Las Vegas, three trips to the Bahamas, trips around Florida and to Ireland, luxury hotels and personal credit card bills.

Church auditors believe the figure stolen over the years by the priests was in the millions.
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(Source: AP)

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