SANTA ROSA - When EMTs rushed to the scene of a Santa Rosa car accident June 19, they found Father Oscar Diaz, a local pastor, stuck in the car with a broken hip and other injuries. They also found $18,305.86, in cash.
Diaz told police the money was his salary. It wasn’t.
The money belonged to Santa Rosa’s Resurrection Parish, where Diaz is pastor. Diaz was attempting to steal it. A subsequent investigation found that Diaz had, in his office and home, collection bags from Resurrection Parish, totaling more than $95,000.
The priest has now been suspended from ministry, the Diocese of Santa Rosa announced July 22, and he has been the subject of a police investigation.
“There is also evidence that money was stolen in a variety of ways from each of the parishes where he had served as pastor. I am deeply grieved that this has happened and am deeply saddened that the parishes he was sent to serve have been harmed,” Bishop Robert F. Vasa wrote in his July 22 press release.
“The full extent of the theft is not known and may never be fully known but the Diocese is committed to determining as fully as possible the extent of the theft from each of these parishes. Once such determinations are made it is the goal of the Diocese to make restitution to the parishes.”
Vasa added that the Santa Rosa “police determined that the protocols surrounding collection accounting would make it difficult to arrive at sufficient proof of theft to pursue criminal prosecution.”
In addition to its July 22 statement, the Diocese of Santa Rosa posted on its website a July 19 memo from Vasa to priests of the diocese, offering further details on the embezzlement.
Diaz, 56, admitted the theft, according to the memo, and will likely not be permitted to serve again in the diocese.
“I will not hide this ugly truth. I have no desire to be defamatory. What we, as a Church, do at this juncture needs to be healing, restorative and transparent. This public declaration is a way in which Father Oscar can be made accountable for his actions. Unfortunately, given the length of time over which theft occurred, the variety of methods and the total dollars involved, I cannot envision any possible future ministry. This will need to be discerned further,” Vasa wrote.
After the priest’s admission of guilt, “I expressed to him my deep sadness, anger and dismay that he had so seriously violated the trust given to him by the Diocese, by the Parishes, and by the parishioners,” Vasa added.
The July 19 memo also explained “reluctance to pursue a criminal investigation” on the part of police.
Vasa noted that pursuing possible criminal prosecution of the thefts would require the diocese to contract a Certified Fraud Investigator, costing at least $5,000, “and possibly more.”
“I have no idea what such an investigation would cost,” Vasa wrote, noting that a fraud investigator would be required to visit five parishes and examine their records.
“While I am willing to have Father Oscar face prosecution I do not know that I want to expend additional money for a prosecution which brings no additional benefit to either the Diocese or the parishes which are victims of his crimes. I am very interested in determining a full accounting of the theft for possible Insurance purposes and in order to do this I initially thought that a criminal complaint by me and a police investigation would be the only way to access Father Oscar’s Banking Records. To his credit, Father Oscar has been very cooperative with me in obtaining the records I need to establish some estimate of the full extent of theft,” Vasa wrote.
The bishop added that he had reflected prayerfully on whether to expend diocesan funds to pursue the possibility of criminal prosecution.
“My goal is some semblance of justice, reparation, and at least spiritual restitution,” Vasa wrote.
“I am still very angry and it is almost impossible to set that anger aside and mercifully discern the path forward. I have asked myself repeatedly what ‘good’ could come from Father Oscar’s prosecution and possible imprisonment. What does ‘justice’ look like in this particular case?”
Vasa noted that possible prosecution could be a deterrent to future theft, but noted that canonical penalties could serve the same purpose. He added that the priest’s “public exposure...is certainly a punishment which sends a strong message.”
“It may happen that the individual parishes involved may desire to file charges and pursue prosecution. I could not oppose such an action. It is the parish’s right to do so. I would however advocate for mercy,” the bishop wrote.
“I have seriously considered this matter from a variety of perspectives but that does not mean that I am convinced that I am right,” Vasa added.
“I know and fully understand that Father Oscar’s actions have only indirectly touched me. Others have been more strongly affected, either directly or indirectly. I am aware that you, my brothers in the priesthood, have felt this theft as a violation of fraternity and a betrayal of both trust and friendship. I cannot speak for your ability, desire, or will to forgive. I can only acknowledge that I am aware of these feelings.”
“Other individuals have been betrayed as well; mostly the lay faithful. Our laity have been asked so often to understand and forgive and I can assure you that I take my responsibility to speak on behalf of the Church, which is all of us, most seriously. I speak in the name of the Church but the individual parishes where Father Oscar has served have a voice as well. I do not envision that any individual parish will seek to pursue criminal prosecution but I fully understand the hurt and anger which undoubtedly will be stirred up in light of this theft and betrayal,” the bishop wrote.
“I ask you to try to turn this moment from one of hurt and anger to a desire for healing, compassion and ultimately forgiveness. I am not negating the seriousness of the crime, I am suggesting a way forward which is more fully consistent with a good and merciful God.”