Monday 21 October 2019

Irish priest admits stealing $100,000 from parish in US

But second cleric still denies any wrongdoing

Fr Francis Guinan waiting to be called in front of the judge in court yesterday in West Palm Beach, Florida
Fr Francis Guinan waiting to be called in front of the judge in court yesterday in West Palm Beach, Florida
Fr John Skehan walks from the courtroom after he changed his plea to guilty
Fr John Skehan is sworn in by Judge Jeffrey Colbath in the Florida courtroom

Stephen O'Farrell

ONE of the two Irish priests accused of stealing vast sums of money from a Florida parish dramatically changed his plea to guilty yesterday on the first day of trial.

Fr John Skehan (81), from Johnstown in Kilkenny, admitted the charge of grand theft of over $100,000 (€77,000) yesterday but showed no remorse for his actions and did not specify the amount he acknowledged stealing.

He and Fr Francis Guinan (68) from outside Birr, Co Offaly, who is continuing to deny the charges, are accused of using the funds of St Vincent's Church in Delray Beach to keep girlfriends, take gambling holidays, buy property and set up a failed mortgage scheme company called SHAG.

They are believed to have stolen millions of dollars with a string of scams, including skimming offertory donations made by the congregation.

Reputation

Following his decision to change his plea yesterday, Fr Skehan ran from the courthouse, dodging journalists after he was freed on bond.

He will be sentenced on March 20 and could face up to 30 years in prison. However, he may still get away with serving no time at all depending on the judge's decision.

Under Florida state sentencing guidelines, Fr Skehan faces a minimum of 21 months behind bars but judges have the power to depart from these and sentence a person to something less. The Florida State Attorney's Office told the Irish Independent last night that they could not speculate on whether Fr Skehan would walk free.

"The judge will have to look over a few things before making a decision," a spokeswoman said.

Defence attorney Scott Richardson defended his client's reputation and asked the judge to allow time to present witnesses to speak on Fr Skehan's behalf.

"He was a priest for more than 50 years," Mr Richardson told the court.

"We want the court to know all the good he did in this community and for others around the world."

However, speaking outside the court, Mr Richardson said his client had found the proceedings "difficult" but stopped short of revealing whether Fr Skehan felt remorseful for his actions. "Father Skehan accepted responsibility for his actions by virtue of his guilty plea. It's been extraordinarily difficult for him from the beginning."

Fr Skehan served at St Vincent's for over four decades and was charged with taking $370,000 (€285,000) between 2001 and 2006.

His successor, Fr Guinan is accused of stealing $488,000 (€376,000) during the 19 months after he became pastor at the church in September 2003. Prosecutors believe that the pair stole over $8m (€6.15m) in total but they can only stand trial in relation to the five-year period previous to charges being filed due to limitations in the legislation.

Fr Guinan continues to deny the charges and the judge yesterday delayed his trial until February 18 after assistant state attorney Preston Mighdoll asked for a continuance.

His attorney, Richard Barlow, said he would prove his client did nothing wrong and that Fr Skehan's plea does not affect his case.

"The fact that they were both priests and were at the same church doesn't make my guy guilty," Mr Barlow said.

He said most of the money the state accuses Guinan of stealing was spent on cash payments to church employees.

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