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The Father Miqueli File: NY Archdiocese Challenged Over Its Handling of Scandalous Accusations (5330)

But its chief spokesman insists it has responded appropriately to the allegations of financial and sexual misconduct leveled against the parish priest.

02/12/2016 Comments (16)

NEW YORK — Shortly after he was assigned to a parish on Roosevelt Island in New York City, Father Peter Miqueli told a local newspaper that he hoped his parishioners would help him become a good priest.

“I am a regular person from the community who has been called upon to serve the community,” Father Miqueli told The Wire in February 2002.

Today, Father Miqueli, while still a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, has no parish or any assignment. He has been sued by parishioners from two churches who accuse him of embezzling $1 million and of alienating the faithful with an aloof and abrasive demeanor. The embezzling allegations — extensively detailed in a lawsuit filed in December 2015 — are being investigated by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.

The lawsuit also details, in lurid fashion, an alleged long-running paid homosexual relationship that Father Miqueli is said to have had with Keith Crist, an alleged male escort whom parishioners say they often saw around their churches, and who Father Miqueli allegedly assigned to run a parish-operated thrift shop on Roosevelt Island.

The alleged homosexual relationship, and accompanying accusations of drug use, were sent to the Archdiocese of New York, specifically to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in a four-page email last summer by Tatyana Gudin, the ex-girlfriend of Crist, whom Father Miqueli is said to have paid up to $1,000 a week for degrading sexual acts. Gudin also detailed the allegations in an interview with the Register, for which she provided copies of text messages from Crist that she says verify the priest’s appetite for disordered sex acts.

“Keith told me everything. We had no secrets,” said Gudin, who added: “The fact that I have one text proving it is already something. How many do I need? A thousand?

Father Miqueli, who resigned amidst a media storm after the lawsuit was filed, “strongly” denies the allegations of sexual and financial misconduct, said Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York. Zwilling told the Register that the archdiocese has been investigating allegations of misconduct from parishioners at St. Frances de Chantal — the Bronx parish where Father Miqueli was last assigned — for more than two years.

“As we resolve each issue, it seems that a new allegation is made. We take them all seriously, but thus far, our investigations have shown that the allegations have either not been substantiated, or are simply not true,” Zwilling said.

 

Unhappy Parishioners

However, a group of parishioners at St. Frances de Chantal say the archdiocese has not been as proactive as it claims, and they say that numerous telephone calls and letters over the last two years went unheeded, leading some to believe that Father Miqueli is being protected.

“For two and a half years, it has been on the archdiocese’s radar, and they’ve done nothing,” said Michael Dowd, a Manhattan attorney who is representing a group of parishioners from St. Frances de Chantal and St. Frances Cabrini Church on Roosevelt Island, where Father Miqueli previously served as pastor.

Dowd told the Register that Father Miqueli, under the archdiocese’s nose, disbanded St. Frances de Chantal’s parish and finance councils, disabled the rectory’s video surveillance system, assigned Crist to St. Frances Cabrini’s thrift shop and put him up in the St. Frances de Chantal rectory.

The lawsuit also alleges that while at the Roosevelt Island parish, Father Miqueli diverted funds designated for a pipe organ to an account that he controlled. That allegation is mentioned in affidavits written by two women, according to the lawsuit.

“If [the archdiocese] doesn’t know all that, then they don’t know what’s going on at the parishes in the Archdiocese of New York,” Dowd said.

In October 2012, Father Miqueli, ordained in 1991, became the pastor of St. Frances de Chantal, which is located in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx. Within a few months, he became a lightning rod for some parishioners who almost immediately began writing letters to the archdiocese and telling local weekly newspapers that the priest was “ruining” their church. In February 2014, a website was created for St. Frances de Chantal parishioners and others to air their grievances.

Two parishioners from St. Frances of Chantal, though they did not want their names published, spoke with the Register and provided timelines, copies of emails to the archdiocese, fliers distributed to all parishioners and financial documents cited in the lawsuit that suggest Father Miqueli’s personal net worth — from March 2013 to July 2014 — grew from $570,000 to $697,000. The lawsuit alleges Father Miqueli’s personal wealth grew to more than $900,000, even though his annual salary never exceeded $31,000.

“Do you realize the archdiocese got copies of his financial records that indicated somehow a guy on $2,400 a month had accumulated approximately $900,000 in money in an account,” Dowd said.

The lawsuit says Father Miqueli, allegedly using cash from parishioners and the parish thrift shop, purchased a home in Brick, New Jersey, for $264,000 in 2009. Property records do show that Father Miqueli purchased the home in June 2009. His address on the sale was listed as 564 Main St., New York, which is the address for St. Frances Cabrini Church. The New York Post sent reporters to the New Jersey neighborhood, where neighbors told the newspaper that they had recently seen Father Miqueli and Crist.

 

Questionable Financial Practices?

The parishioners at St. Frances de Chantal told the Register that they had concerns early on about Father Miqueli’s financial practices. They alleged he changed the parish’s collection procedures. According to the lawsuit, instead of safeguarding each collection bag in a lockable bag and keeping the bags in a safe overnight, Father Miqueli combined the collections from each weekend Mass into one canvas tote bag and kept the bag in his room at the rectory.

The lawsuit also alleges that Father Miqueli maintained no tally sheet and that he alone counted the collections in his room. Parishioners told the Register that in the summer of 2014, while Father Miqueli was away on a month-long vacation, several unlocked canvas bags filled with donations sat unsecured outside his room in the rectory.

Zwilling, the archdiocesan spokesman, told St. Frances de Chantal parishioners in a letter dated Dec. 11, 2015, that the archdiocese, while describing the embezzlement allegations as “completely false,” did find that Father Miqueli had “deficient management and administrative practices,” and that the archdiocese put forward “several directives to remedy those deficiencies.”

Questioned by the Register as to what were Father Miqueli’s “deficient management and administrative practices,” Zwilling said that “there were several items, including that the money was not properly safeguarded and stored.”

“Please note that neither parish — Cabrini on Roosevelt Island, or St. Frances in the Bronx — are wealthy parishes,” Zwilling said. “It would be impossible for someone to be stealing money at the rate that is being alleged without it becoming very obvious very quickly. Please also note that the parish on Roosevelt Island was getting [a] financial subsidy from the archdiocese before Father Miqueli arrived. They were self-sufficient when he left.”

St. Frances de Chantal parishioners provided the Register with a copy of a $14,000 check that Father Miqueli wrote to himself from the parish stipend account in June 2014. The lawsuit alleges he diverted funds by writing checks to himself and labeling such withdrawals as stipends in amounts ranging from $500 to thousands of dollars.

 

Forensic Audit Under Way

Zwilling said the archdiocese is conducting a forensic audit of the parish’s finances, and that the results of that audit will be shared with the Bronx District Attorney’s Office “in case there has been any criminal activity.”

“We notified the DA back in August [2015] that we would do this,” Zwilling said. “We also notified the DA of the accusations of sexual misconduct, in case there was anything criminal activity involved there as well.”

The financial allegations against Father Miqueli — while at this point are unconfirmed accusations — do highlight a problem in Catholic institutions. Last year, several high-profile embezzlement cases came to light in parishes and Catholic schools. In September 2015, a former Catholic high school principal in Charlotte, N.C., pleaded guilty to embezzling $160,000 to finance a lifestyle that included overseas travel. In December 2015, Father Edward Belczak was sentenced to serve 27 months in prison after stealing more than $500,000 from his parish in Troy, Mich., to pay for alcohol and gambling debts.

“Whenever you hear about a large embezzlement, like in this case, there’s always addiction involved. It’s gambling, or drugs, alcohol or sex,” said Charles Zech, an economics professor and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at the Villanova School of Business.

“There is always something there to cause people to behave that way, so they start stealing large amounts of money to feed their addiction,” Zech said. “Most embezzlers don’t start out stealing large amounts of money though. They take a 20 here, a 50 there, and it escalates.”

The lawsuit alleges that Father Miqueli, in addition to allegedly paying large amounts of money for sex, also paid for recreational drugs with Crist, his alleged male prostitute. Text messages that Gudin, Crist’s former girlfriend, gave to the Register purport to show Gudin and Crist in December 2014 discussing Molly, a recreational drug, that “the priest” had allegedly obtained.

Zech also said financial controls vary by diocese. He said the Archdiocese of New York has “good standards” in place, which include a requirement that at least two people be involved whenever cash and checks are being handled. However, even when those controls are in place, Zech said their implementation at the parish level can be inconsistent.

Father Miqueli “apparently didn’t even have a finance council, which is mandated by canon law,” Zech said. “A finance council might have caught what was going on early on. And he also had no parish council. Those are red flags that there is something this guy doesn’t want people to know about. There were all kinds of funny things happening in this guy’s parish that show he lacked trust in the parishioners, and they lacked trust in him.”

 

History of Concerns

Parishioners said they tried to raise their concerns to Father Miqueli early on. In April 2014, they said Jack Lynch, an elderly and longtime parishioner of St. Frances de Chantal, met Father Miqueli for lunch, and that the priest had “no reaction” to their concerns.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, parishioners at St. Frances de Chantal Church alleged Father Miqueli was absent from the parish four days a week, said he mishandled collections, purged longtime parish employees, installed his friends as parish trustees and behaved rudely to the lay faithful. During that time, there was also an allegation that Crist had shown Internet pornography to a young man in the St. Frances de Chantal rectory, and parishioners said the incident was reported to the Safe Environment Office of the Archdiocese of New York.

Zwilling said the archdiocese has investigated “every allegation” that it has received from St. Frances de Chantal over the last two years.

Said Zwilling, “However, since we have brought this matter to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, which is now conducting its own investigation, I will not be commenting on specific allegations while their investigation. We will continue to work with the DA’s office to attempt to bring this matter to a resolution.”

A group of St. Frances de Chantal parishioners began writing letters to the archdiocese as early as March 2014.

In October 2014, a group of parishioners distributed a parish-wide mailing outlining their grievances, saying the parish’s spiritual life had eroded. They sent hard copies of their complaints to archdiocesan officials in October 2014, and a month later, they had a meeting with Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik and a deacon. The parishioners said the deacon promised to relay their concerns to Cardinal Dolan and keep them updated, but said the deacon stopped answering their phone calls.

In March 2015, parishioners said Lynch received an email from Cardinal Dolan notifying him that a meeting between the cardinal and the parishioners to discuss Father Miqueli would be “premature” at that time.

Zwilling said the archdiocese believed it had an agreement in place with the parishioners who had brought forward the complaints and allegations against Father Miqueli.

“There were agreed-upon steps that would be taken in the parish, to go into effect by Jan. 1, 2016. That was why it was so surprising to see the lawsuit,” said Zwilling, who added: “Please note that it was only a group of parishioners from the parish, not all of the parishioners, who were making these allegations and complaints. It would not be accurate to state that it was from all the parishioners of the parish.”

The parishioners who spoke with the Register said Gudin confirmed their suspicions about Father Miqueli’s alleged financial wrongdoing when she reached out to them in May 2015. At that time, Gudin said she had been kicked out of a Manhattan apartment that Father Miqueli allegedly helped Crist pay the rent. She also alleged that Father Miqueli used his influence as a priest to have police arrest her for drug possession as payback for her emails to archdiocesan officials about the sexual allegations.

Gudin also provided the Register with a document that Father Miqueli signed in December 2014 where he agreed to pay $1,075 in back rent that Crist owed his landlords. Gudin said she reached out to the archdiocese and emailed Cardinal Dolan because “it was the right thing to do.”

“I didn’t turn them in because I was a scorned girlfriend, and I’m getting back at them,” Gudin said. “I didn’t have a problem with the gay part and I didn’t have a problem with the escorting part. I had a problem with stealing from your parishioners, leading a double life and being a hypocrite, and abusing your power.”

Gudin, who describes herself as an atheist, said she has provided information and documents to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. Zwilling said the Archdiocese of New York has also requested to meet with Gudin and review her documents.

“On three occasions, we asked the woman who claims to have emails, texts and photos, and who originally claimed she wanted to share them with us, to please let us see them, or share them with the DA,” Zwilling said. “She has refused to do so. We are still interested in hearing from her or anyone else who has information to document or substantiate any of these charges. We would like to see it. Our door is open.”

Gudin, and Dowd, the attorney representing the parishioners who sued Father Miqueli, said Gudin made arrangements last year to meet with the archdiocese. They said she wanted to bring Lynch, the St. Frances de Chantal parishioner, with her to the meeting, but that the archdiocese refused.

Zwilling said archdiocesan officials had already met with Lynch, and he said Gudin canceled the meeting when the archdiocese told her that Lynch was not welcome to come with her. Zwilling also said that Cardinal Dolan read Gudin’s emails.

“He asked that they be turned over to the DA, which was done,” Zwilling said.

Cardinal Dolan told local media outlet after the lawsuit filing became public in December that the allegations were “awful,” “vicious” and “mean,” and that Father Miqueli’s priesthood “will be over” if the allegations are substantiated. The cardinal added: “We’ve got to get to the bottom of it. But right now, we’ve done our best looking into it and haven’t found any fire.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts

Filed under archdiocese of new york, brian fraga, cardinal timothy dolan, father peter miqueli, joseph zwilling