Priest Pleads Guilty to Theft

By Patrick Meighan
The Telegraph [Nashua NH]
December 13 , 2003

NASHUA - All that remains is the $8,000 question - why?

The Rev. Steven Kucharski on Friday pleaded guilty to stealing more than $500 from St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack, where he was pastor. His plea encompassed thefts that occurred on six occasions between October 2002 and January 2003.

The plea did not include thousands of dollars allegedly missing from a church collection taken during a Christmas Eve Mass. However, as part of the plea deal, Kucharski must repay $8,000, an amount that includes an estimate of money missing from that collection.

When he’s sentenced in six to eight weeks, Kucharski faces up to eight months in jail on the Class B felony charge. He also has been ordered to stay off church grounds and have no contact with St. John Neumann Church administrative staff.

Under the plea deal, the sentence will be deferred for two years - meaning that during that period Kucharski must appear before the court to argue why he should not serve any portion of the eight-month sentence he hadn’t already served.The sentence also will be suspended for two more years, meaning that the priest could go to jail during that period on the theft charge if he gets into more trouble.

Neither Kucharski nor his attorney, Gary Lenehan of Manchester, would comment on why the priest stole from his parish’s collection offerings. But the prosecutor, Assistant County Attorney Roger Chadwick, said he expects that question to be answered during the sentencing hearing.

The guilty plea came after a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge denied Kucharski’s request that prosecutors honor an earlier plea deal he struck with Merrimack Police calling for a suspended sentence on a misdemeanor conviction.

Judge Bernard Hampsey ruled in favor of prosecutors, who wanted to pursue the more serious felony charge of theft by unlawful taking of more than $500.

The real victims of the crime are the church parishioners, Hampsey said.

One parishioner who attended the Superior Court proceedings said he hopes Kucharski serves jail time.

Though the plea agreement caps Kucharski’s possible sentence at eight months, his attorney will seek no jail time when the priest is sentenced.

“When I found out about this, I didn’t want to see him go to jail,” parishioner Ed Kirby said. “I wanted to see him pay a fine, restitution. . . . I wanted him to have to go back to St. John Neumann and explain why he did what he did.”

But then Kirby learned that on several occasions, Kucharski stole from church collections the day after he had addressed the thefts from the altar, asking that whoever was responsible to step forward.

That changed Kirby’s mind about how Kucharski should be punished.

“I was very angry,” Kirby said. “I think maybe he should see the inside of a jail for a few months.”

Kucharski admitted to thefts on six occasions, taking an undetermined amount twice in October 2002, plus $42 on Dec. 2 of that year, $212 on Dec. 15, $142 on Dec. 29 and $140 on Jan. 6, 2003.

He was caught after Merrimack police began an investigation, spurred by a story in The Union Leader in which some parishioners complained that money had been taken from the Christmas Eve collection, typically one of the largest of the year.

A church janitor told police he observed Kucharski taking money from collections held in the church safe. The investigation culminated when police placed fluorescent powder in money collected Jan. 6. Then police questioned Kucharski after some of that money was reported missing. Traces of the powder showed up on the priest’s palms when police viewed his hands under a fluorescent light, and a $10 bill in Kucharski’s wallet also showed traces of powder.

Kucharski resigned from the parish Jan. 8, and in a letter apologized to the parish “for my actions,” without specifically admitting to stealing money.

That isn’t good enough for Kirby.

“As a parishioner, he owes me an explanation of what he did and why he did it,” Kirby said.

Ironically, if Kucharski was in a jam and needed money, all he had to do was ask, Kirby added.

“St. John Neumann is a very giving parish,” Kirby said. “If he had a need and went to the parish, we would have given it to him.”


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