Priest with money bags hurt in crash, allegedly pilfered $95K from Santa Rosa church

By Gwendolyn Wu
San Francisco Chronicle
July 22, 2019

A pastor with the Diocese of Santa Rosa allegedly stole more than $95,000 from his parishes, church officials discovered following a June car accident. Bishop Robert F. Vasa, of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, speaks during a Jan. 14, 2019 press conference to discuss the diocese's release of names of past priests and deacons credibly accused of ...
Photo by Ramin Rahimian

Bishop Robert F. Vasa, seen here in January, says a Santa Rosa priest allegedly stole at least $95,000 from five Northern California churches.
Photo by Ramin Rahimian

Bishop Robert F. Vasa knew something was amiss as the bags of cash started piling up.

First, it was the six security bags — used for collecting parish donations — found in a Santa Rosa priest’s car after the pastor was injured in an accident. Then it was the dozen sacks — both sealed and unsealed — in the same priest’s office, as well as a $10,000 stack of cash found in his desk drawer.

But a final trip to the Rev. Oscar Diaz’s home unveiled the extent of the money allegedly skimmed from five Northern California churches — at least $95,000 taken over the course of 15 years from well-intentioned parishioners, church officials said Monday.

Diaz, 56, was identified by church officials as the culprit. The suspended pastor of Resurrection Roman Catholic Parish in Santa Rosa first set off suspicions June 19, when he fractured his hip in a car crash, according to the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Emergency responders arrived on the scene to treat Diaz and take him to a local hospital for surgery, but they also made a startling discovery: The half-dozen bags in the vehicle were stuffed with $18,305.86 in cash, which officials said came from parish donations.

“The chain of custody in the parish is that they’re not taken off-site, put in cars and not managed singly by the pastor,” Vasa told The Chronicle.

Diaz allegedly described the money bags to first responders as his salary, but a hospital employee contacted police after the stuffed sacks arrived at the emergency room with the injured priest. The church told parishioners of the alleged deception Sunday.

Investigators later found Diaz had taken an additional $77,000 from the parishes he previously led for much of his career, officials said.

The week after the crash, Vasa said, Diaz called his staff to report additional collection bags in his office that needed to be processed and deposited. They found a dozen more, along with $10,083 in a stack that consisted “mostly” of $100 bills, officials said.

Some checks written out to Resurrection Parish were allegedly deposited into Diaz’s personal bank account.

Vasa and Monsignor Daniel Whelton visited the pastor’s rectory and apparently found even more bags. Diocesan staff suspect the alleged thefts at the Resurrection Parish began in September 2018, just a month after Diaz began leading Sunday Mass at the church.

Diaz allegedly admitted to Vasa he was taking funds from the parish and is cooperating with the church’s internal investigation. However, no criminal charges are expected, Vasa said, because the protocols around “collection accounting” would make for a difficult investigation.

“Could he argue that he was using this as a collection for the poor and he was gonna keep it and distribute it to the poor?” the bishop said. “It’s unlikely and a violation of policy, but is it clear legal evidence of theft? It’s just not as easy to prove.”

Santa Rosa police did not respond to a request for comment.

Monday’s news comes as the Catholic Church grapples with numerous sex abuse scandals across the country, as well as the recent ban of a West Virginia bishop who was accused of harassment and misspending church money on personal luxuries, such as chartered jets and more than $180,000 in fresh flower deliveries.

It is unclear how Diaz allegedly embezzled parish funds for so long, but church finance experts said collection standards often vary.

The diocese’s chief financial officer should have controls in place to notice the missing donations, said Charles Zech, the executive director of Villanova University’s Center on Church Management.

“Every parish has to have a finance council, but some are just rubber stamps,” he said.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa did not respond to a request for comment about its parish reporting practices.

Vasa said that while it’s difficult to determine the “full extent” of the thefts, the diocese will pay restitution to the parishes affected.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa suspended Diaz, who underwent surgery after the crash, from the ministry during the embezzlement investigation. Church records show the pastor recently celebrated 25 years with the diocese. He previously led several parishes in Lake and Sonoma counties: St. Joseph Church of Cotati, Our Lady Queen of Peace in Clearlake, St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Ukiah and St. Mary Parish in Lakeport.

All 177 United States dioceses have different parish accounting policies, according to Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay organization calling for sex-abuse-policy reform.

The nonprofit publishes an annual report after auditing each diocese’s fiscal practices and examining how open it is to sharing information about donations.

Voice of the Faithful lauded the Diocese of Santa Rosa in 2018 for greatly improving its financial transparency webpage, but the organization also noted that the diocese was only above average when it came to explaining how parish collections were used.

Jason Berry, an author who investigates sexual and financial abuses in the Catholic Church, said embezzlement schemes, which are now “numbingly common,” and reports of sexual misconduct run “parallel.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends regular and frequent auditing in every diocese and its parishes, but each diocese has its own collection policies, much like varying child sex-abuse-reporting policies prior to the 2002 Boston Globe investigation that found widespread abuse in the church.

Policies on best practices, such as sealed security bags and having at least three parish staff members count collections, have been adopted by parishes nationwide, but they are not uniform for every church.

“If the priest had been found or accused of abusing children under their national guidelines, they would immediately report to the police and let the legal system follow through,” Berry said.

If the Diocese of Santa Rosa declines to press charges against Diaz, Zech said, it could show a double-standard for what is morally correct for laypeople versus clergy.

“If the bishop doesn’t prosecute,” Zech said, “he’s saying to the rest of the priests in the diocese, ‘It’s OK, you’re allowed to get away with this.’”

The Rev. Aaron DePeyster, a priest previously with the Archdiocese of Detroit, is leading the Resurrection Roman Catholic Parish in Santa Rosa in the interim.



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