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US priests 'in $800,000 theft'

By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent

Rev John Skehan appears in court on 21/1/09
Father John Skehan admits stealing the money for property and rare coins

Two Roman Catholic priests have been accused of stealing $800,000 (£577,000)from the collection plate of their church in the US state of Florida.

They allegedly planned to spend the money on property, holidays and gambling.

One of the priests, Fr John Skehan, 81, abandoned his not guilty plea, but Fr Francis Guinan, 66, denies the charges.

US law - the statute of limitations - prevents the priests being charged with thefts that occurred before 2001.

But the auditors say that up to $8m might have disappeared over a period of 20 years.

It could be the biggest embezzlement case to affect the Catholic Church in the United States.

One of the priests - Fr John Skehan - abandoned his not guilty plea just before his trial began and admitted stealing money given by parishioners at St Vincent Ferrer Church, in West Palm Beach.

His lawyer Scott Richardson said Fr Skehan admitted stealing more than $100,000 "but not close to $800,000".

The priests allegedly hid the money in the church ceiling and opened offshore accounts.

Fr Skehan - who has been given the honorific title "Monsignor" - served at the church for 40 years.

He admitted spending stolen money on gambling in Las Vegas and a collection of rare coins.

However, Mr Richardson said Fr Skehan denied claims that he had spent money on expensive houses.

'Well-supported'

Fr Skehan's colleague at St Vincent Ferrer Church, Fr Francis Guinan, has been accused of using his share of the embezzled money to support a mistress and take her on expensive holidays.

The authorities claim Fr Guinan had an "intimate" relationship with a former church book-keeper and spent much of the money on her.

Rev Francis Guinan in court on 21/1/09
Father Francis Guinan denies any involvement in the theft

Fr Guinan denies the charges and will go on trial next month.

Fr Guinan's lawyer, Richard Barlow, said: "Just because both priests worked at the same church and one pleads guilty, it doesn't mean my guy is guilty."

Mr Richardson said: "Fr Skehan accepted responsibility for his actions by virtue of his guilty plea", adding: "he has the support of many people, many of whom will speak on his behalf".

He could be sent to jail for as long as 31 years.

Both priests were originally from Ireland. Fr Skehan comes from Johnstown in County Kilkenny and Fr Guinan from Birr in County Offaly.

Fr Skehan was arrested at Palm Beach International Airport in September 2006 on his return from Ireland.

Both the priests left the United States after the Church received a tip-off in a letter, and began an investigation into the accounts at St Vincent's, and what they called "alleged improprieties".



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