Priest admits stealing $650,000 to feed gambling addiction

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By Jessica Fryman

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church members learned Sunday that their pastor — who admitted stealing $650,000 from the parish — will not be back.

The parishioners wept.

“I hope you can all understand why Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe can no longer be pastor,” said a letter from Bishop Joseph Pepe to the congregation at Sunday Mass. Many had begged for their leader’s return amid the months-long federal investigation into fraud allegations they hoped were false.

The outpouring of emotion came not from feelings of betrayal, but for the suffering of their priest, they said.

“I feel hurt for him. That’s where my tears come from,” said Gloria Devlin, who has attended the church since before its chapel was built in the early ’90s. “It’s not hurt or betrayal or anything for me. It’s for him. All these tears and anguish are for him. Something desperate had to have driven him to this. I’ll pray for him every day.”

McAuliffe pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to three counts of mail fraud in connection to stealing from several parish funds, including the church mission, gift shop and votive candles, from 2002 to 2010. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count. He also agreed to pay $650,000 in restitution. His sentencing hearing was set for Jan. 6.

Bishop asks for prayer
Pepe’s letter, the first detailed explanation to worshipers since the FBI started investigating in late May, asked that they support and pray for the monsignor while relying on their faith to find forgiveness. The church will dedicate its holy hour to prayers for McAuliffe at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Pepe, who read the letter himself at morning Mass, straightforwardly outlined the pastor’s guilty plea and explained that new procedures would help prevent future financial theft in the church.

McAuliffe, 58, had been a pastor at the Summerlin church since 1997 and was second only to the bishop in the Las Vegas Diocese. The priest is credited with leading the parish of about 7,000 families to become one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in Nevada, building its school and heading charitable outreach programs and ministries.

Even with McAuliffe’s admitted wrongdoings, many reeled in disbelief Sunday. His name still topped the church bulletin as head pastor.

“This man’s life and soul was this church,” said Patricia Ehrenberg, who has been an active member of the parish for nearly 20 years. “How can you look at everything we have here and believe he stole from the church? I just can’t believe it.”

Others said that before McAuliffe pleaded guilty, they were convinced the allegations were a misunderstanding that would quickly be resolved.

“I’m believing it more now that we’ve heard a letter from Bishop Pepe, but it’s still hard to believe,” Devlin said. “We still love him very much.”

While Pepe’s letter conceded that parishioners likely felt “deeply hurt and even betrayed,” members instead expressed sadness and worry for their beloved pastor.

“I feel very sorry for him,” Ehrenberg said. “We need to pray for him.”

Called a test of faith
The members said they would be strong in their belief in God as they move forward. The standing-room-only crowd at Sunday’s noon Mass seemed to be a testament to that faith.

Interim Pastor James Jankowski, who read the letter on Pepe’s behalf at the after­noon services, said the congregation had “remarkable resilience.”

“Your faith has been stellar,” Jankow­ski said, noting that reading the letter was the hardest thing he has had to do. “I sincerely apologize for what Monsignor Kevin has done. It tarnishes the church. It tarnishes the priesthood. It can weaken our faith.”

He said he hoped the incident served as a reminder that members could only put their full trust in God.

“I think we all have to remember regard­less of who we are or what we do, there is evil in the world. He may be a priest, but he’s human,” said Mary Elizabeth Low, who has attended the parish for 10 years. “I think we’re a very large community and we’ll stand together. It’s not the priest, but the people that make the church. And who are we to judge?”

She said while she thinks the situation could be a large test of faith for some, she is hopeful the church will move forward.

The Las Vegas Diocese has already worked past a previous incident when the Rev. William Kenny was reinstated as pastor of Christ the King Catholic Community. He had been relieved of his duties in 2007 when it came to light that a sealed lawsuit centered on allegations that Kenny spent more than $300,000 of a parishioner’s money.

Parishioners want to know why
U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said in an email last week that he couldn’t discuss what McAuliffe did with the money, or if he even knew the answer to that question.

“I would feel a sense of betrayal if we get the truth that it was taken for bad or personal gain, but I just know that’s not it,” said Aldo Aguirre, a parishioner of more than a decade. “I do want the plain truth, though. If we ever find out, there will be a sense of closure on this very sad chapter for all of us parishioners at St. Elizabeth’s.”

Some parishioners worried that McAuliffe’s thin frame pointed to a medical condition for which he used the money. Others questioned whether he took funds to help someone else in need. They said the priest drove an old beat-up Cadillac and donned worn-out boots, shrugging off the possibility he stole for personal gain. They felt the vast amount of time he spent at the church ruled out lavish vacations or a gambling addiction.

While parishioners were firm in their belief the money wasn’t used for evil, it’s a question they want answered: Where did it all go?

“There’s an incredible sense of sadness and loss for not having our great leader here,” Aguirre said, wiping away tears before they could fall to his cheeks. “Forgiveness is what we do. We’ll forgive him, but the question is still there: Why?”

This story was originally published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal
on Oct. 10, 2011.
Original story on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website.



By Jessica Fryman and Doug McMurdo

After months of speculation, the parishioners of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church learned why their pastor had been placed on leave when he pleaded guilty Friday to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church.

Still, one question remained: Why did he do it?

The answer: Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe is a compulsive gambler.

McAuliffe, 58, expressed his remorse for the theft through his attorney, Margaret Stanish.

“He has donated his life to serve his church and others,” an emotional Stanish said on Monday. “He, however, has a gambling addiction. He’s so very remorseful for the hurt he has caused to all who are precious to him.”

McAuliffe, the former vicar general for the Las Vegas Diocese, ranking second only to the bishop, pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in federal court. The monsignor acknowledged stealing $650,000 from the Summerlin parish, including funds from the gift store, votive candles and church mission. His sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 6.

Stanish said McAuliffe wants to speak up, but she advised him to wait until after his case comes to a legal resolution.

“He said that if he can save one marriage, save one person from suicide, then it would be worth it to tell his story,” she said, noting that the pastor is not suicidal but is deeply ashamed.

Parishioners reached in the afternoon appeared willing to forgive, and one man credited McAuliffe with helping him with his own recovery.

That man, Robert Ragan, said he met McAuliffe in June in a treatment program.

“If Kevin wouldn’t have been in my group, I don’t know if I’d be doing as well as I am doing right now,” said the 27-year-old, who spent two months in treatment with the priest. “Everybody looked up to him. He had a lot of insight.”

Ragan said he had undergone prior treatment for his gambling addiction but didn’t take it seriously until McAuliffe became his friend and mentor through their recovery process. The monsignor gave him a Bible, Ragan said, and helped him to understand spirituality, which had been lacking in his life.

The pair bonded through their attraction to video poker, a common choice for gamblers seeking escape.

“I know that being a priest, it can be alienating. He was a lonely man,” Ragan said, noting that the priest became very emotional at times in treatment. “He didn’t have any friends, really, which I can relate to. Any pathological gambler can relate to always being isolated.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling reports 1 percent of U.S. adults are pathological gamblers. The addiction rate jumps to 6 percent for Nevada adults, according to the state’s council on the issue. Pathological gamblers are described as having broken the law or borrowed money to finance the habit, made failed attempts to quit and experienced depression or suicidal thoughts over losses.

Ragan said he hopes the public will understand that gambling addiction is a disease and come to forgive the pastor, whom he calls a dear friend.

“You can easily put on this mask because there’s no physical symptoms of it,” Ragan said. “But really, it’s eating you alive from the inside.”

Although parishioners initially were questioning how the monsignor spent the money, most were overwhelmingly sympathetic and supportive of their priest. They said learning he spent the money to feed a gambling addiction didn’t change that.

“My heart still goes out to him. It’s said that those who have no sin can cast the first stone,” said Gloria Devlin, who has attended St. Elizabeth’s for nearly 20 years. “Addiction is an illness. Sometimes we don’t understand addictions, and it’s easy just to say ‘just quit.’ But it’s not that easy for people with an addiction.”

Julie Root, a parishioner of about four years, said though she is shocked, learning McAuliffe has an addiction just makes her more sorrowful.

“It just makes him more human, very much like ourselves,” she said. “It makes me a little bit sadder knowing that he was going through something like this.”

Stanish said McAuliffe worries about St. Elizabeth and its parishioners.

“He knows he let them down,” she said. “Believe me, he knows he let them down.”

In court documents, McAuliffe agreed to pay $650,000 in restitution; where that money will come from is unknown. He also faces a maximum term of 60 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

His attorney said six decades behind bars is unlikely. McAuliffe has no prior criminal record, and federal prosecutors have indicated they will seek a term on the lower end of federal sentencing guidelines, Stanish said. She said her client could face in the neighborhood of 33 months and might even get probation.

“He by no means is looking at mandatory imprisonment,” Stanish said, admitting that McAuliffe stealing such a vast sum over nearly a decade while in a position of trust does not bode well.

Then again, state courts last year took notice of the toll problem gambling has on Nevada families and created diversion programs for people who run afoul of the law to support their addiction. They stay out of jail, instead undergoing intense treatment to address the root cause of their addiction.

The federal government has no such program, Stanish said. Still, she will ask for compassion.

In the meantime, McAuliffe continues to receive treatment, she said.

Ragan, who said he spoke with the pastor last week, is optimistic about McAuliffe’s recovery.

“Kevin has a very strong recovery right now,” Ragan said. “He’s staying positive about everything. He’s in acceptance, which is a great place to be. All he can do is move forward and make amends.”

This story was originally published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal
on Oct. 11, 2011.
Original story on the Las Vegas Review-Journal website.