|Bad Deeds, Worse Excuses
By Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post
March 8, 2009
Americans continue to suffer from a national decline in the quality of excuses, alibis and cover stories. One of the most alarming examples of shoddy excuse-making came from a West Palm Beach courtroom, where Francis Guinan tried to justify his betrayal of faith, hope and charity - the triple crown of reprehensible behavior.
Two weeks ago, a jury found the Irish Catholic priest guilty of embezzling thousands from the collection plates at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Delray Beach and using the money to support a lifestyle that would have worn out rock stars and NBA players. Guinan used church money for trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas. He used it to buy real estate, furniture and jewelry. He used it to gamble and entertain women. Prosecutors said he took money from a slush fund - which the Irish media dubbed a "lush fund" - and destroyed financial records.
With a gig like this, who cares about eternal salvation?
Guinan might have spared parishioners and the public further disillusionment by admitting his culpability and confessing his sins, much as his colleague, fellow Irish priest and business partner, John Skehan, had done. Skehan pleaded guilty to grand theft of $370,000 and similar shenanigans. He will be sentenced this month.
Instead, Guinan asked a jury to accept that his behavior might have been immoral but not illegal. To paraphrase biblically, his spirit was willing but his flesh was weak; jurors should let him answer to a higher power.
Guinan's worst moments came when he testified that the stolen money was "small compensation" for his service. As a defense witness, he brought in the Rev. Thomas Rynne, a Jensen Beach priest, who suggested that Guinan might have lived so large to deal with the stress of the job, that he turned to babes, blackjack and Vegas because he was tired of hearing the faithful complain about their problems.
"It's almost impossible for you people to understand what it is to be a priest," the Rev. Rynne said. This was a redemptive moment for the Catholic "you people" who have thought it was impossible for priests to understand what it is to be a parent and make a marriage work, given their celibate state - their theoretical celibate state.
Guinan further undermined an unimaginative defense by a performance on the witness stand that was derivative of Barry Fitzgerald's charming Irish priest in the movie, Going My Way. He should have testified with a fly rod in one hand and a briar pipe in the other.
His performance was also reminiscent of Anthony J. O'Connell, who became bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach seven years ago. An avuncular cross between Tip O'Neill and W.C. Fields, O'Connell described himself self-deprecatingly as an "old shoe." It turned out, however, that O'Connell was really an old pervert who resigned in disgrace after sexual abuse charges surfaced. Are the odds of bumping into a corrupt Irish priest now greater in Palm Beach County than in Ireland?
Guinan at least could have advanced the cause of creative excuse-making. He could have told the jury that he needed the church's bling to do field research in debauchery and better understand the nature of sin, so as to better minister to his flock. He went to Vegas for the same reasons an archeologist goes to Newark instead of the pyramids, or an auto mechanic explores a junkyard - to better understand the totality of his craft.
The jury wouldn't have bought it, but it would have been fun to hear.
Dan Moffett is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. His e- mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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