State: Priest Diverted Church Cash
Probe Finds St. Joseph Pastor Placed Collection Money in "Gray Box" with No Accountability
By Melissa E. Holsman
TCPalm [Stuart FL]
September 23, 2004
STUART — Before donations were tallied each week at St. Joseph Catholic Church, $500 in cash was diverted into a "gray box" controlled by the church's former pastor, a state investigation found.
The seven-month investigation, triggered by parishioner complaints about possible misuse of church funds, found the Rev. A. Christopher Allen appeared to be "living beyond his means," according to a state attorney's report released Wednesday.
The investigation also found evidence that Allen instructed church bookkeepers to write checks on church accounts, cash them, and give the money to him, and that thousands of dollars in cash deposits were made to Allen's personal bank accounts.
No charges have been filed against Allen, 52, St. Joseph's pastor from 1997 until he resigned in July.
The State Attorney's Office ended its investigation after a top official at the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach told investigators that "he did not see anything alarming" in the findings.
The diocese's Vicar General, the Rev. Charles E. Notabartolo, also told investigators that, under church law, Allen was "responsible for all monies that come into his church and he has the authority to control it as he sees fit."
Allen on Wednesday said he had done nothing wrong and that the collection cash placed in the gray box could be called "a pastor's discretionary fund."
"Diocese regulations allow a pastor to spend up to $25,000 at a time without permission from the diocese," he said. "I did not make it a secret that we had a fund that we kept in the safe; my staff knew it."
Allen said he considered himself on a leave of absence from the diocese but had left the parish.
In July, the diocese informed investigators that Allen had "resigned" as St. Joseph's pastor, would not be put in another position that involved handling money, and had been "encouraged to seek psychological counseling," the report said.
Jim Brosemer, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach, on Wednesday said church officials hadn't seen the state report.
"The diocese fully cooperated in this investigation and we are in the process of forming our own independent investigative team to look at the finances at St. Joseph," he said.
According to the state report, the investigation began in January when a St. Joseph parishioner, Dave Schoonover, went to authorities with allegations that Allen was living "well above" his means and might be "skimming" money from church collections. Schoonover could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
According to the report, Schoonover gave investigators copies of documents he and another parishioner had taken from "garbage" at the church, 1200 E. 10th St. in Stuart, and at Allen's personal residence in Port St. Lucie.
Those documents included a memo on handling collections, including instructions "to take cash out of the collections before tallies are made, and to put that money in a 'gray box,'" according to the report.
Parish bookkeeper Ann Marie Brown later told investigators that every week, $500 in cash was taken out of the collection money before it was counted and was placed in the gray box. Each month an additional $250 was taken from the diocesan collection and placed in the gray box.
"She stated that Father Allen controls the 'gray box,'" state investigator Rick McIlwain wrote in his eight-page report.
Brown told investigators that Allen used money from the gray box to replenish church accounts when they got low, and at one point gave her $10,000 in cash from the box to pay for a new bus for the church school.
Brown also told investigators that "on occasion Father Allen will give her a check, sometimes in large amounts, made out to cash, and have her go to the bank, cash the check and bring the cash back to him."
Allen on Wednesday said money from the gray box paid for unbudgeted school expenditures, tuition assistance and other charitable causes. He said using a discretionary fund was no different than what he'd experienced at other parishes and "there were no changes in procedures or policies from the time I took over until the time I left."
Investigators, however, discussed the gray box practices with Denis Hamil, finance auditor of the Palm Beach Diocese, who said putting cash in the box before collections were tallied "would be outside the course off any normal procedure ... and would be a violation of the diocesan policy," the report states.
Another former parish bookkeeper, Kendra Remian, confirmed the gray box procedures to investigators and related two other incidents involving $10,000 checks.
After the 1998 Christmas collection, she said Allen instructed her to write a $10,000 check for cash from the church account and put the money in the Christmas collection because "he had already taken the cash from the collection," the state report said.
In another incident, Allen had her write a $10,000 check for cash, cash it, "and then give him the money."
In July, state investigators met with diocesan officials in West Palm Beach and told them it appeared Allen "was living beyond his means," and the subpoenaed bank records showed thousands of dollars in cash deposits were made to Allen's personal accounts.
Allen dismissed the significance of the cash deposits, saying the funds represented rent his mother pays him and money he received from a car he leased to a fellow priest.
Other deposits included cash gifts or fees priests receive for weddings, funerals and other activities, he said.
"My personal accounts and the church accounts did not cross," Allen said.
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