NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
November 5, 2022
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Audit details potential irregularities in which nearly $400,000 of church congregants’ funds were allegedly misused
A Catholic priest who led one of New Orleans’ best-known inner-city churches until being accused of sexually molesting a child has been reported to federal authorities for possible financial crimes after an audit found he spent nearly $400,000 of his congregants’ money in questionable ways.
John Asare-Dankwah ran the St Peter Claver church in New Orleans’ historic Treme neighborhood from 2014 until early 2021, when a lawsuit alleging that he raped a boy on an out-of-state overnight trip years earlier prompted church officials to indefinitely suspend him from his role.
Asare-Dankwah, 62, has denied the rape accusation. But his financial stewardship at St Peter Claver – whose parishioners grapple with high levels of poverty and gun violence – also fell under scrutiny after the city’s archdiocese in 2020 became the oldest in the US to file for bankruptcy, largely because of lawsuits pertaining to the Catholic church’s ongoing worldwide clerical molestation scandal.
An archdiocesan audit completed in August 2021 and unsealed on Friday as part of the record in the litigation centering on Asare-Dankwah also detailed extensive potential fiscal irregularities at St Peter Claver while he was in charge there, including $368,682 in disbursements made to him or on his behalf from money donated by congregants.
Those included more than $80,000 in checks made out to Asare-Dankwah and nearly $72,000 in payments to his personal American Express credit card, none of which contained documentation establishing that the money was spent for valid reasons.
Another nearly $67,000 from a church Visa credit card in Asare-Dankwah’s name was paid to restaurants, food vendors and grocery store chains, including Costco and the relatively top-end Whole Foods, according to the audit.
Two bank accounts for special fundraisers were also flagged, including one pertaining to a December 2018 car raffle. Asare-Dankwah, originally from Ghana, told auditors that the raffle for the $21,000 car raised less than $38,000.
The audit revealed that more than $103,000 was deposited into an account associated with the raffle from which funds were disbursed until Asare-Dankwah was suspended – well after the raffle date. The review wasn’t able to determine exactly who possessed the car, though it said the priest recalled that the raffle winner didn’t accept the vehicle, sold it back to the originating dealership and then deposited the proceeds into the church’s coffers.
Another fundraiser account – pitched as a building improvement campaign fund to celebrate the 100th anniversary of St Peter Claver’s founding – registered nearly $136,000 in cash withdrawals by Asare-Dankwah that the auditors wrote “may represent potential misappropriations” because nothing established that the money was spent for its intended purpose.
The audit noted that Asare-Dankwah drew an annual salary of $23,340 as well as a yearly business allowance of $7,200, and he was provided housing, insurance and retirement benefits.
He was also overly generous in payments he gave to priests who performed masses on a visiting basis, writing them checks averaging about $987 for their services – when a typical payment is $50 – creating another nearly $220,150 in spending that might not be illegal but was still worrisome, according to the audit.
Before the audit focusing on Asare-Dankwah was unsealed, the archdiocese turned it over to the FBI, which investigates cases of possible bank and credit card fraud, court records filed on Friday showed.
Authorities as of Saturday had not charged Asare-Dankwah or any other administrative employees at St Peter Claver named in the report with any crimes.
An archdiocesan spokesperson said Saturday that the discovery of St Peter Claver’s financial issues resulted directly from due diligence ordered after Asare-Dankwah’s removal from ministry.
An attorney for Asare-Dankwah didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday about the findings of the audit.Advertisement
The Josephite Fathers Catholic order bought St Peter Claver in 1920 to serve the Black population in that area of New Orleans. It is a popular campaign stop for politicians running for local and state offices.
After losing the pastorship over the child rape claim filed against him, Asare-Dankwah countersued his accuser, alleging defamation. The dispute, like the archdiocesan bankruptcy filing, remains unresolved.
Asare-Dankwah’s countersuit argues that his accuser unduly harmed the reputation he built up in part by starting a personal development institute meant to help address New Orleans’ high levels of gun violence, though the group – which once listed the city’s current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, as an officer – is no longer active.
Asare-Dankwah also wrote a letter to New Orleans’ archbishop, Gregory Aymond, urging the archdiocese not to reach a financial settlement with his accuser.
“I am totally, completely and perfectly innocent,” Asare-Dankwah wrote in the letter, dated about four months before the audit into his church’s finances was completed.
On Saturday, the archdiocesan spokesperson said local church officials are no longer in touch with Asare-Dankwah.