March 25, 2009 / 5:39 PM / 9 years ago

Priests get jail for stealing from church

MIAMI (Reuters) - Two disgraced Roman Catholic priests have been sentenced to prison for misappropriating more than $8 million (5.5 million pounds) from their church, a theft one judge called a case of “greed unmasked.”

John Skehan and Francis Guinan were accused in 2006 of skimming money from collection plates and bequests at their church in Delray Beach, Florida, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate, travel, rare coins and girlfriends.

Skehan, 81, was sentenced on Tuesday to 14 months in prison and seven years probation after pleading guilty in January to a charge of grand theft of over $100,000.

Guinan, 66, was sentenced on Wednesday to four years in prison after taking the case to trial and being found guilty of a lesser charge of theft under $100,000.

Judge Jeffrey Colbath imposed the prison term on Skehan despite requests from prosecutors, defence lawyers and the Diocese of Palm Beach for probation only, the Palm Beach Post reported.

“The court finds the defendant is not merely sorry because he got caught, but is truly shameful, embarrassed and remorseful,” the newspaper quoted Colbath as saying.

“The crime of the defendant was pure greed unmasked. There was not a shred of moral necessity to excuse the defendant’s crime,” he added.

When the priests were charged in September 2006, police said they had channelled money from collection plates into secret slush funds, using some of it for church projects and part for vacations, property and gambling trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas.

Investigators said Skehan, a priest for more than 50 years, invested heavily in rare coins, owned a cottage and a pub in Ireland, a $455,000 penthouse condominium in Singer Island, Florida, and another apartment in Delray Beach.

Forensic accountants hired by the diocese found that $8.7 million had been misappropriated from the St. Vincent Ferrer Church during the tenures of Skehan and his successor, Guinan.

“Those who hold special positions of power or influence, including spiritual leaders, must hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct or they will be held accountable by the community,” Palm Beach State Attorney Michael McAuliffe said in a statement.

Reporting by Jim Loney; Editing by Eric Beech

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