Bronx parish pastor resigns amid widely publicized scandal

Accusations of theft. A lifestyle of the rich and famous on a salary of about $30,000 per year. A man-man-woman triangle.

If there is a formula for a New York tabloid story, the case of Fr. Peter Miqueli, accused of embezzling more than a million dollars from two parishes, is exhibit A.

A lawsuit brought by some of Miqueli’s parishioners -- he subsequently resigned his Bronx pastorate last week -- charges him with theft from weekly collections and a church thrift shop, all to allegedly finance a prescription drug habit and to support Keith Crist, a bodybuilder friend, with a cash purchase of a $264,000 house in New Jersey and the rent on a Manhattan apartment, among other items.

Tatyana Gudin, a woman identified as Crist’s former girlfriend, has offered explicit details into the priest’s relationships which have become fodder for the city’s tabloids, including this story in the New York Post.

Both Miqueli and Crist have been unavailable for comment while Gudin has provided media outlets with a steady flow of information about the alleged sexual and financial improprieties. Miqueli, in his resignation letter to the parish, denied the charges and said he was cooperating in an archdiocesan investigation into the alleged embezzlement.

Critics say that Miqueli has long been protected by the archdiocese. A previous assignment, as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church on Roosevelt Island, generated complaints about an alleged theft from a fund intended to pay for a church organ. Miqueli was pastor at St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, a parish located on a residential island in the East River filled with apartments, from 2003 to 2012. In 2012, he was named pastor at the Bronx parish, serving a middle-class section filled with suburban-style homes near Long Island Sound, seemingly a promotion.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said he received the emails from Gudin and other information from parishioners alleging theft. He told the New York media that the archdiocese is investigating and that he had notified the Bronx district attorney’s office about the accusations in August.

Dolan was made archbishop of New York in 2009. Miqueli previously served under Cardinal Edward Egan, who died while in retirement in March 2015.

Auxiliary Bishop John Jenik has met with concerned St. Frances de Chantal parishioners but no settlement of the contentious situation has been reached.

Archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling, in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, said that the investigation by the archdiocese revealed sloppy accounting practices at the parish but no embezzlement.

"We have asked the people who are making these charges to please provide us with documentation but they have thus far failed to do so," said Zwilling.

Charles Zech, director of the Villanova University Center for the Study of Church Management, told NCR that the allegations against Miqueli point to the need for standard accounting procedures in parishes.

Allegations by parishioners that the pastor counted collections on his own "is a huge no-no" leaving even the most honest person open to suspicion, said Zech. Parishes need to use best practices for finances in which the collection process is segmented, meaning that different people are given different responsibilities for collection, counting and depositing money, and assuring that there are checks-and-balances. Parishes should also have active finance councils, said Zech.

Parish financial scandals are often aggravated by people in responsibility being afflicted by addictions to sex, gambling, drugs and alcohol, he said.

A number of documents issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the past 25 years have suggested implementation of industry-standard best practices in parishes and diocesan institutions. Still there have been widely-reported parish embezzlement scandals in recent years in parishes in Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio, and, in two separate instances, the archdioceses of New York and Philadelphia were victimized when hundreds of thousands dollars were embezzled by employees, crimes which were later prosecuted.

[Regular Catholic press contributor Peter Feuerherd writes from Queens, N.Y.]

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