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  Pot-Growing Priest Pleads Guilty, Gets Suspended Term

By Karen Farkas
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
April 7, 2004

Akron — An unrepentant Rev. Richard Arko pleaded guilty Tuesday to growing marijuana in a closet in his rectory, saying he hoped that someday it would not be a crime.

"I strongly believe in the benefits of marijuana and its use for medical purposes," he said when asked by Summit County Common Pleas Judge Patricia Cosgrove why he had jeopardized everything he had worked so hard for by cultivating the drug. "For some time I have seen those benefits, and they are very helpful."

But cultivating 35 plants and owning the tools to do so are illegal. Cosgrove sentenced Arko, 40, to two years of community control and 100 hours of community service. The judge, who suspended a two-year prison sentence, said Arko would be randomly tested for drugs. Arko admitted during his intake interview at the Summit County Jail that he used marijuana.

Norton Police Lt. Thad Hete, who investigated the case, looked bemused after the sentencing.

"At no time did the investigation show that the marijuana was being grown for medicinal purposes," he said.

Arko's status with the Cleveland Catholic Diocese is uncertain. Diocesan officials placed him on unpaid leave after he was arrested in January but said he would never return to Prince of Peace Church in Barberton regardless of the outcome of the case.

Donald Varian, Arko's lawyer, told Cosgrove that Arko has a canon lawyer and is negotiating with the diocese. Robert Tayak, diocesan spokesman, said Tuesday that a felony conviction does not remove a priest from priesthood. But an allegation of sexual abuse has been lodged against him and must be investigated by the diocesan review board if Arko wants to return to the ministry, Tayak said.

The Summit County prosecutor's office said it is investigating an allegation made in February by a 24-year-old Barberton man that Arko had molested him since he was 15. Arko was ordained in 1990 and has been in the Barberton area since 1994. He had been pastor at Prince of Peace since March 2003. The church is in Barberton, and the nearby rectory is in Norton.

After Norton police received a tip that drugs had been sold from the rectory, they bought $20 worth of marijuana from Jensen Powell, 24, whom Arko had allowed to live there. When police entered the building with a search warrant on Jan. 21, they found the marijuana plants in the spare bedroom's closet, equipment for growing them and items for making marijuana cigarettes.

Last month, Cosgrove sentenced Powell to six months in a community-based correctional facility after he pleaded guilty to trafficking in marijuana.

On Tuesday Arko, who is now living in Barberton, acknowledged that his actions had negatively affected his family, his parishioners and himself.

"I do not know if I have had the best hearing in the media or in my own diocese, but you have given me a fair hearing," he told Cosgrove.

 
 

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