The Pastor and the Missing Money
Priest in Rumson Stole at Least $500,000, Lavished Gifts on Male Friend, Authorities Say

By Brian Donohue and Mary Jo Patterson
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
November 6, 2004

In Rumson, a jewel of a town by the Jersey Shore known for its quiet wealth and shaded lawns, the Rev. Joseph W. Hughes blended right in.

There was the constant stream of luxury cars, the membership at the Rumson Country Club, the frequent vacations, and of course his big diamond ring. Father Hughes, pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church for the past 16 years, seemed to dine out every night at pricey restaurants like the Fromagerie or Harry's Lobster Restaurant, often with the same few couples from church.

It may have been a flamboyant lifestyle for a parish priest, but most people believed he had inherited family money. Yesterday, authorities said the 60-year-old priest was tapping into an altogether different source.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office held a news conference in Freehold to announce that, between 2001 and 2004, Hughes allegedly misappropriated at least $500,000 of the church's funds to cover personal expenses such as limo rentals and airline tickets -- and bestow gifts on a 25-year-old male "personal friend," including a $58,000 BMW, giant-screen TV, stainless steel refrigerator, jewelry and trips to Bermuda and Cancun.

The friend, David Rogers of Howell Township, is a $50,000-a-year employee of Holy Cross Church who performed maintenance work, authorities said. The priest bought Rogers' house in Howell, a ranch, in 2003, according to documents on file in Monmouth County. Hughes currently pays the mortgage and utility bills, authorities said.

"Certainly, he did not dedicate his life to the lifestyle of a vow of poverty," said first assistant prosecutor Robert A. Honecker Jr. He said there were "obvious failures of internal controls" at Holy Cross.

Hughes turned himself in to police on Thursday after learning that an arrest warrant was in the works. He was charged with one count of theft of more than $75,000 of church funds, and released on $100,000 bail. If convicted, he faces a 10-year prison term, according to authorities.

The Diocese of Trenton has removed him from the priesthood and expelled him from the rectory in Rumson. The rectory and simple white wood-shingled Colonial-style church are set on nearly six rolling acres, between the Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club and a gated riverfront mansion. Church collections bring in $750,000 a year, authorities said.

Yesterday, Hughes was said to be "in an undisclosed location with friends," said his attorney, Michael Pappa of Hazlet.

Reaction from parishioners at Holy Cross was mixed yesterday. Some, like choir director Tucky Parent, called him "a wonderful priest and pastor."

Others said they were hardly surprised. "A lot of people thought something would come down someday," said Bill Denver, a parishioner from Shrewsbury. "He lived a very elaborate lifestyle."

Hughes had spent the last two years pushing for a controversial expansion of Holy Cross Church, a project that had sharply divided the parish. Supporters pledged $8 million for the project, of which Holy Cross has collected $5.2 million, the prosecutor's office said.

That project has been significantly scaled back by the Rumson Zoning Board of Adjustment, which called Hughes' original plan "too expansive and massive."

Authorities said they believe that although Hughes raided a number of church accounts, they did not find any evidence that he helped himself to money earmarked for the expansion.

They also emphasized that they had not charged Hughes' friend. Honecker said, however, that investigators want to determine if Rogers knew how the priest financed his presents.

Rogers could not be found for comment yesterday.

A neighbor, Ed Percoco, said Rogers was a quiet man who often hung out with friends on his front porch and played the guitar.

Hughes' alleged misdeeds came to the prosecutor's attention on Nov. 1, when the Diocese of Trenton notified the office of "possible criminal conduct," Honecker said. The diocese had performed a financial audit of the church, covering the period from July 1, 2001, to July 30, 2004.

The audit revealed a bank account, not found on any of the parish's financial reports, at Shrewsbury State Bank. Money in the account had come from golf outings, raffle events and other charity events to benefit the church, according to authorities.

Hughes drew $390,000 from the account to cover non-parish expenses, chiefly credit card and personal bills, Honecker said. Another $137,000, in checks Hughes made out to "cash," was removed from the account, he said. Bank statements for the account were sent to a post office box in Sea Bright, the assistant prosecutor said.

The priest also took money from an account at a different bank, where the church had several investment funds, Honecker said. He allegedly used money from that fund to cover another $52,000 in personal funds.

From yet another church account, Hughes took $100,000 for personal expenses, Honecker said.

Honecker said he believed that church members had no idea what was going on.

"It was believed the lifestyle he was leading was being paid for by proceeds from his inheritance," he said.

Honecker said the alleged theft "could go higher" than $500,000. Many of the bills reviewed are very large sums and are not itemized, he said. The criminal investigation is continuing.

From 1974 until 1988, when he became pastor at Holy Cross, Hughes was principal at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville.

Before then, he held a series of associate pastor positions, at St. Joseph's Church in Toms River, Our Lady of Mount Virgin in Middlesex, and St. Philip and James R.C. Church in Phillipsburg, said Steven Emery of Princeton Communications Group, an outside public relations specialist hired by the diocese.

Emery said that Hughes is still "technically a priest," despite his resignation and removal, and will continue to receive salary and benefits from the diocese.

Pappa, the priest's attorney, described his client as a tireless advocate with a heart "as big as he is." Hughes is a portly man.

"If you needed him, he was there," he said.

Yesterday, outside the Holy Cross school, some parents fretted over what to tell their children.

"I send them to this school to teach them not to steal and cheat," said Claire McCartney of Holmdel, while picking up her son, a seventh-grader. "I just feel so bad for the kids."

At Notre Dame High School where Hughes served as principal, educators who knew Hughes said they were shocked by news of his alleged crime and personal life.

"I cannot say anything bad about Father Hughes," said Ralph Sheffield, defensive coach for the freshman football team, who said Hughes' efforts greatly boosted the school's academics and enrollment.

"He was a priest, but he was down to earth. Everybody loved the guy," he said.


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