Catholic priest's defense to target gambling


When Kevin McAuliffe appears in federal court Jan. 13, the Catholic priest's addiction to gambling will be used as an argument for leniency in his sentencing for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his Summer­lin parish.

His attorney, Margaret Stanish, has hired an expert who will offer testimony about gambling and his assessment of McAuliffe as a pathological gambler. The expert, Dr. Timothy Fong, is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and on the staff of UCLA's Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He treats problem gamblers with a combination of pharmacology and psychotherapy, trying to rewire brains that can't shake the feeling the next bet is going to yield a big payday.

According to court papers, Fong will tell Mahan that the former monsignor, in addition to being a pathological gambler, suffers from major depression and social anxiety.

Meanwhile, the priest hopes his case sheds light on problem gambling in Nevada -- and that people will get help before the disease takes command of their lives, as it did with his, according to McAuliffe's attorney.

THE SILENT ADDICTION

There aren't many vices the Nevada lifestyle can't exploit, and McAuliffe, who was the pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, is far from the only resident to develop a compulsion to gamble -- or who resorted to theft to feed that addiction.

Stanish said her client is remorseful and eager to share his story.

"He thinks some good can come out of this if he talks about what he's gone through," she said after McAuliffe, once the vicar general of the Las Vegas Diocese, pleaded guilty. "Our hope is the judge takes into account the monsignor's gambling problem and all the good works he's done."

Six percent of Nevada adults are compulsive gamblers, according to statistics from the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. The national average is between 1 percent and 2 percent.

This translates to at least 120,000 people in Clark County and 25,000 in Reno. Only a small percentage of them commit crimes to feed their habit, but the "silent addiction" wreaks havoc in other ways.

Compulsive gambling is called the silent addiction because those afflicted are hard to spot. Nobody overdoses from gambling. You don't get arrested for gambling and driving.

A WOLF IN PRIEST'S CLOTHING

McAuliffe, 58, was not forced to admit to major theft. He pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud, but theft is what he did, and he did it a lot: $650,000 worth.

According to court documents, he stole from the collection basket.

He stole from the votive candle fund.

He stole from the gift shop.

He stole from the church mission fund.

He stole from the general bank account and he wrongly reimbursed himself by claiming he made church-related purchases on his personal credit card when he did not.

Indirectly, McAuliffe stole from every church in the diocese. As second-in-command to Bishop Joseph Pepe, McAuliffe was responsible for controlling finances -- and for giving the diocese 13 percent of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's annual income from the contributions and collections of its more than 10,000 families.

Thirteen percent of $650,000 is $84,500.

Parishioners were rocked in June when Pepe announced McAuliffe had been relieved of most of his duties while the FBI investigated the theft allegations.

Rumors flew for four months, pitting the many who couldn't believe their beloved priest did anything wrong against those who feared the worst.

In October, those fears were realized when McAuliffe and federal prosecutors agreed to a deal. McAuliffe pleaded guilty to the mail fraud charges for sending falsified financial documents across state lines to the San Francisco Archdiocese.

After he entered the plea, the question of the faithful became, "What did he do with the money?"

By all appearances his life was an austere one.

McAuliffe, said parishioners, drove a Cadillac that was old when he brought it to Las Vegas from Wisconsin in 1997. He did his own repairs. He wore threadbare jeans and cowboy boots. He was frugal.

But he had a dark secret -- a secret that might have revealed itself whenever McAuliffe walked into a casino and sat down in front of a slot machine.

AN ADDICTION TO GAMBLING

In an Oct. 8 interview conducted one day after her client pleaded guilty, Stanish said the irresistible temptation to gamble led McAuliffe to steal from St. Elizabeth's over a period of years. That irresistible temptation has the priest facing a maximum term of 60 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

But he could also receive probation, depending on what federal probation officials have learned about McAuliffe's life in preparing their pre-sentence report for Judge Mahan, and what prosecutors have to say about the man.

In court documents outlining his plea agreement, McAuliffe agreed to repay the money he took from the Summerlin parish -- but how a priest who no longer has a flock would do that is unclear.

Mahan might be inclined to be lenient if McAuliffe somehow makes restitution -- or at least a sizable payment -- before his hearing.

But the federal court system has yet to embrace the concept of alternative sentencing programs that many state judiciaries have implemented.

Clark and other Nevada counties have programs for offenders ranging from drug addicts and repeat drunken drivers to people with mental health issues. The Legislature in 2009 created a specialty court for problem gamblers, albeit one that couldn't be implemented for lack of funding.

And while the U.S. government seems more interested in taking a pound of flesh than giving an ounce of cure, federal prosecutors and judges are not without compassion.

A VIEW FROM THE FEDERAL BENCH

"We are very concerned," said U.S. Chief District Judge Robert Jones when asked whether problem gambling is an issue for a significant number of federal defendants.

Jones presided over bankruptcies for two decades before ascending to the federal bench in Las Vegas.

"A substantial percentage of bankruptcies are caused by problem gambling," he said, recounting a case in which a man filed bankruptcy after his wife chocked up "huge gambling losses" in the year after they moved to Nevada.

"All judges have that concern, and I don't fault the Nevada Legislature for enacting laws to address it."

Jones said while there are no specialty courts in the federal system, there are treatment programs available. When defendants are found guilty of a crime that was committed to pay for a gambling habit, he said, "very specific" conditions can be placed on them, including an outright prohibition on gambling once they are released from prison or if they are given probation.

Jones said U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden and Federal Public Defender Rene Valladares and their respective staffs are well aware of the toll all addictions have on defendants, their families and society as a whole. They prepare their cases accordingly, he said.

While federal judges have the discretion to require a defendant to get treatment, they don't often grant them the opportunity to avoid a conviction.

"Diversion is always a possibility," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Jason Carr, who spoke in general terms and not on a specific case. "But they are quite difficult to get. You better have an ultrasensitive client or the prosecution has to have major defects in the case. They are extremely rare in federal court."

Diversion is available to people who commit minor crimes because of an addiction. If they successfully complete a treatment program that lasts from one to three years, the charge that got them into trouble is dismissed.

DA: CASES INVOLVING GAMBLING RARE

Outgoing Clark County District Attorney David Roger does not think problem gambling results in many crimes, and as a result he doesn't think the state should fund a specialty court for problem gamblers.

The overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by people involved in some manner with the illegal drug trade, he said, and not because they gamble more than they can afford to lose.

Roger said his office opposed gambling addiction legislation when it was discussed and ultimately passed in 2009.

"We took issue because the law allowed courts to dismiss a case without the defendant paying one penny in restitution," Roger said.

NO FUNDS TO PAY COUNSELORS

Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn disagreed with the district attorney's opinion that an addiction to gambling doesn't usually result in crime.

And without a formal and funded specialty court, it can be difficult to find a place for an offender to get help.

"If you can't afford an attorney you probably can't afford counseling," he said, particularly when it can take years for an offender to stop gambling.

While Roger said the state law doesn't require full restitution, those who treat compulsive or pathological gamblers require their clients to do so. Restitution, according to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, is a primary element of the treatment process, which also includes cognitive behavior therapy.

"We do not want to send the message that you get a free pass or that we condone this behavior," said Denise Quirk, an addictions counselor and marriage and family therapist in Reno.

Quirk said federal judges in Reno have diverted people guilty of theft-related crimes to a treatment program for compulsive or pathological gamblers.

She has advocated for such people in federal court in Reno with mixed results. A pathological gambler is described as the "worst of the worst" of problem gamblers.

One of Quirk's clients, a twice-convicted bank robber, ultimately went to prison but the judge also ordered treatment for his gambling addiction while he is incarcerated and after he is released.

Another client, a woman charged with counterfeiting and a drug offense, was allowed to enter treatment for compulsive gambling. Quirk said she is now a "model citizen."

Treatment, when it works, is remarkable, she said. "It's amazing when you see the transformation. She is now a productive member of society."

If she stays out of trouble, her criminal record will remain clean.

THE TOLL TAKEN ON FAMILIES

Clark County District Judge Cheryl Moss has been a Family Court jurist in Clark County for a decade. She served on the legislative subcommittee on problem gambling that ushered through a bill to create the specialty court for problem gamblers in 2009.

She said judges sometimes base child custody and property division decisions on whether a spouse has a gambling problem.

And sometimes, a spouse can see no alternative to dealing with a problem gambler other than divorce.

"The budget problems would not allow us to create another court," she said, "but we're still able to order treatment."

Moss said problem gamblers affect the family in ways other than spending the grocery money. As Judge Jones said, bankruptcy is common, but there are other issues.

"They leave kids in cars while they go gamble. They leave their kids in a casino's child care and forget to pick them up."

Compulsive gambling also leads to domestic violence and other destructive behavior, Moss said.

And sometimes, it leads to a priest pulling a stint in federal prison -- with his congregation left to pick up the pieces.

Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@review journal.com or 702-224-5512.

 

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