A New York enigma: The Irish priest and the heist

Father Pat Moloney was regarded as a saint to the street urchins of Lower Manhattan but to others he was a sinner and he served time for his involvement in one of the biggest robberies in US history. He still protests his innocence and he told his incredible story to Donal Lynch

Saint or sinner? 'We looked to see the good in everyone, the rough looking kid, the tough looking kid, the face of God is in him,' says Fr Pat Moloney. Photo: Neville Elder.

If the feds could be believed, Father Pat Moloney should be a very wealthy man. By their count there might well be a few million dollars hidden somewhere under the floorboards of the ramshackle brownstone in New York's East Village which has a Cead Mile Failte sign inside the door. But if the fortune they looked for was ever here it would appear to be here no longer. Certainly the wise and witty Melkite cleric who runs the place has never showed signs of worshipping mammon.

He still lives here at Bonitas House like a monk, with his foster son from Thailand, now in his thirties, who father Pat took in after attending graduate school with the young man's father. There are two native Irishmen whom he recently helped get back on their feet, and a scientist from NYU University, which is just a few blocks away. The priest's former sleeping quarters, a wardrobe-sized room with a cot stretched over his filing cabinets, have been replaced with a little office-cum-bedroom, where he sleeps on a camp bed, set up for him by two Catholic nuns. This may be some of the most expensive real estate in the entire United States but it's hardly the comfort befitting a man who was once described as "the underground general of the IRA".

That was in 1993, when snipers surrounded Bonitas House from all sides and Father Pat was arrested after a raid. He was eventually tried and found guilty on charges relating to a $7.4 million armed robbery of the Brinks bank in Rochester in upstate New York. At the time it was the fifth-largest bank robbery in US history and the white-haired, scripture-quoting priest at the centre of the case caused a media sensation.

Federal officials discovered "substantial" monies at his home and at another address which he controlled. He served four years in federal prison, all the while protesting his innocence. Meanwhile the East Village, where he had long been seen as a St Francis of Assisi-type saviour to troubled and homeless immigrants, was convulsed by riots.

The walls around St Bridget's, the church built by Irish famine immigrants 200 years ago, were plastered with a soon-to-be-familiar slogan: Free Father Pat. Elsewhere the press pondered his case, with The New York Times asking: 'is he a saint, a robber, or even both?' It turned into a transatlantic debate, one which drew in the Church.

The Catholic hierarchy which usually closes ranks at the first hint of scandal was unusually supportive with its then-general counsel Camille F Sarrouf, calling Father Pat, "such a good person, and so committed to the poor and disadvantaged. That's been his life. I don't think there is any violence in him."

Speaking last week Fr Pat says that, on reflection, some of the suspicion that grew up around him grew out of the pragmatic expedients of his work with poor immigrants.

"I had, unapologetically, over the years, ran safe havens spread out over the city", he recalls. "They were for, say, an undocumented person who we needed time to prepare their papers until they could be presented to authorities, for someone on the run where we didn't have time to establish their innocence. Or it could have been a wanted Irishman or Palestinian. We helped a lot of people. All through it I circumvented every law in the book but I never broke any of them, so (the authorities) couldn't get me."

Until the feds came calling that is. His arrest and trial were a farce, he continues to insist.

"They found $2 million in an apartment in Stuyvesant town (an area in Manhattan just north of the East Village) which was controlled by me, but which had been given over to a former blanket man (IRA hunger striker Sam Miller). Of course he was here in this country undocumented and all the rest but that was beside the point. They had no iota of a shred of evidence that I had been involved in the actual robbery."

Throughout his trial Father Pat sat quietly reading his prayer book, "as calm as a winter breeze." The cardinals forbade him, he says, from taking the stand and testifying on his own behalf, as it would compromise his work. But when the judge remarked that it would take a miracle for him to get bail he mischievously quipped: "Your honour, I am in the business of miracles." The money was raised in a matter of days. Father Pat wryly describes what followed as "my four years as the guest of a federal government." He was sent to serve his time in snowy Minnesota and moved around every few months. He describes it as a physically gruelling but spiritually enlightening period in his life.

"In the system I was treated badly", he recalls. "I was treated as badly as if I was [notorious mobster, John] Gotti or someone. They black boxed me, meaning they put your hands in a device so you can't even feed yourself. They moved me around. That's the type of stuff they do, they disorientate you, they call it circuit therapy. Your belongings are always following a few weeks behind. I was in about four or five Bastilles of the federal government. Once you've been tried they can up your classification of prisoner on a whim. I was moved to Minnesota because they thought I was too close to the media. The place there was like a fancy mental hospital that had been adapted into a prison."

He was revered amongst the rougher inmates of the prison. "I was told 'you're either a Robin Hood character, and they'll love you for stealing from the rich, or you're innocent and you're a martyr.' Either way they'll love you."

In prison, he says authorities tried to limit his religious freedom, but he stood up to them.

"I threatened to go on hunger strike if they didn't allow me to say mass with my vestments every day. I said if the Jews can have their yarmulkes and the Muslims can have their mats and the Indians are allowed their smoke blankets, I will have my vestments. I prevailed in the end. It was one of the most glorious periods of my life in one sense. I identified with the priests who had been imprisoned in the gulags in Russia. I met people who were high up in what I call Murder Incorporated. I became their friends. We had one thing in common: we were brother convicts."

The freezing Christmas of 1993 will always stand out in his memory, he says. "It was almost a mystical experience. I started a club. It was called the smilers' club. I would just tell the lads, walk and hold your head up high and smile. They have our bodies but they can't imprison our souls. Let nobody take your inner equilibrium, they don't own that. I had a sign up in my cell that said 'stone walls don't make a prison nor iron bars a cage'."

The life in prison, he says, was redolent of the monkish existence he thought he might live once he came to the US. Father Pat had grown up a contemporary of Frank McCourt in Limerick (Angela's Ashes was, he says "for the most part an accurate description" of the city; he remains friendly to this day with Frank's brother Malachy, who teaches near his East Village home).

Moloney was the son of a carpenter, and had moved to the US in April of 1955, arriving in New York the Sunday after Easter. He had intended to work toward the priesthood and after stints in Baltimore and Manhattan he began studying theology and philosophy at St John's University in Brooklyn.

"There I met street urchins", he recalls. "They were very similar to the type of kids I'd seen in Limerick. It came as a shock to me because I'd certainly thought of America as the land of milk and honey. I hadn't the faintest idea that any kind of poverty could have existed in America. I got an apartment on East 9th Street. I got a beat up old car and a part time job in an orphanage on Staten Island."

He managed to buy the building that Bonitas House would eventually find its home in with the help of a backer from Leitrim. He told his fellow students in St John's, 'you have a reservoir of knowledge but the water is stagnant because it's not going out to irrigate the land or the people who need it.'

When they asked what he meant he brought them to Manhattan to help out at Bonitas House. In those years the island of Manhattan was, in the words of New York-born writer Fran Lebowitz, "one big floating garbage dump" and the city was almost constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. But Father Pat saw different qualities in the place.

"The Lower East side was the most kaleidoscopic neighbourhood in the whole United States and, probably, the world. It was magical. You had poor Poles, Russians, Germans, French, Irish, Italians. Kids playing around garbage cans with old used tyres. On every street corner you saw beautiful eyes staring out of sockets of poverty. When I arrived there was not one Hispanic or black person here. There were Jewish stores everywhere, greengrocers. It was like an Eastern European village; Polish bakeries, haberdashery stores on every corner. Later, as those people climbed the socio-economic ladder, there would be great prejudice, because the first who had arrived felt it was their territory. I heard people saying to me 'you're bringing these 'spic (Hispanic) kids here' and I was outraged. I said 'are you a native American? I don't see feathers coming out of your head!'"

He was ordained a member of the Catholic Melkite Church of the Eastern Rite ("from the East came light and from the West came law", he says) and became a priest in 1977, but was still afforded a degree of freedom by the Church. The ethos of Bonitas House, he says, was inspired by the Catholic activist, anarchist Dorothy Day.

"We looked to seek the goodness in everyone, the rough looking kid, the tough looking kid, the dishevelled kid, the face of God is in him. Irrespective of what he looks like, there is a spark to be ignited", he explains. St Bridget's, the famine-era church on the corner of Tompkins Square Park, where Father Pat still regularly says mass, became what he calls "a multi-national shrine."

During these early years Father Pat also adopted a little boy, Jason. "He was born in New York to Hispanic parents. When he was a baby his mother had been crossing the street, a gang war broke out and she jumped in front of her sister, who was pregnant, and got hit herself; she never walked again. The bullet was lodged in her spine. She had blood transfusions. She said to me 'will you promise to take care of my boy.' There was a death bed adoption and the boy became mine."

Jason was killed in the Bronx while the priest was in prison. "He was with his girlfriend and came upon a burglary in progress and they shot him and tried to set the building on fire. It was an awful tragedy. He was my pride and joy", Father Pat recalls.

In the years before his arrest Father Pat also became a well known Republican activist, calling for a united Ireland and announcing himself as "fiercely dedicated to the cause of Irish freedom." He also said mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan for Pat Finucane, the Belfast solicitor who was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. He says that his activism brought him to the attention of authorities back home and on a trip to Ireland with his brother in 1981 both were arrested, with the investigation making national news here.

"When (Gardai) went to my father's house they found my American and Irish passport and saw that I'd travelled to the Middle East. They knew my age bracket and knew that I was educated in Limerick. I was referred to as 'Padre' and they apparently had a man called Il Padre on their most wanted list. They thought they'd struck gold, that I was the pimpernel, so to speak. There was colossal media interest." He says that "all of the charges were eventually withdrawn and the court went into uproar."

He says that the short stint in Portlaoise prison during the 1981 incident served him well in terms of withstanding his sentence in America during the mid 1990s, when he was frequently shackled, hand and foot. He says that when that prison sentence came to an end he found that the world had changed.

"My brother and my sister-in-law came up to get me in the mountains of Pennsylvania. And cell phones had come into common usage during the years I was in there and they were holding these things up to their ears and I was thinking 'what is this?' That was just one example of the way that life had moved on. Dorothy Day always said that when you come out of prison you have to walk before you can run.

"Inside, everything we did was on a strict schedule. It took some adjusting for me to get used to the freedom of not being tied to that. Inside, first thing in the morning I'd say 15 decades of the rosary, driving (the prison guards) mad. Up on the wall everywhere there was a sign saying 'in God we trust and I'd say to them 'you'd better not trust him, you'd better fear him." He says that he never got over the irony of what he calls the miscarriage of justice that led to the conviction.

"They always believed that we were a small, secret cell of the IRA. They'd tell me that I had no common sense and I'd say 'we Irish suffer from a different affliction; it's called genius!"

Now 83-years-old he looks back almost wistfully on his time in the international headlines, calling the prison sentence "my little sojourn" or "my long stay at the government's expense."

He remains a committed nationalist and still has a picture of hunger striker Bobby Sands beside his bed. He travels back to Ireland every couple of years and has family in Limerick.

Having survived prostate cancer over the last few years he says that he has no intention of retiring and remains a kind of one man Ellis Island for each new generation of poor, shivering humanity from the old world. Bonitas House has never had a paid worker, he says, and everyone who lives there helps out. His car was destroyed in a fire a couple of years ago but he soldiers on.

He has recently been called 'a local legend' by The Village Voice and the The New York Times described how Fr Pat 'battled the gang leaders and drug dealers as ferociously as he now fights the developer-gentrifiers.'

"There's a Latin phrase which means 'you are a priest forever'", he says. "If you are called on to serve you can't send a lawyer or an accountant, no matter how qualified they may be. Only you, the person who has the calling, can do the job. I want to die with my boots on."