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Pastor pleads guilty to theft from Catholic church in Summerlin

A high-ranking Las Vegas Catholic priest admitted in federal court Friday to stealing $650,000 from a Summerlin parish, including funds from its votive candles, gift shop and church mission.

Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to three counts of mail fraud in connection with the thefts, which took place over several years from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church.

The guilty plea capped nearly four months of turbulence and uncertainty in the parish, which was rocked in June when the Las Vegas Diocese announced the priest had been relieved of most of his duties as investigators looked into the parish’s finances.

On Friday, Joseph Pepe, bishop of the Las Vegas Diocese, acknowledged the toll the investigation has taken on parishioners.

“This situation has been extremely trying on everyone: parishioners, employees, volunteers, the community and me personally,” Pepe said in a statement. “No one should be above the law, especially someone who commands the public trust and violates that vow.”

McAuliffe, 58, admitted in court documents that between 2002 and 2010 he stole from the church in upscale Summerlin by taking cash from its accounts.

In pleading guilty, McAuliffe waived the right to an indictment by a federal grand jury. He also agreed to pay $650,000 in restitution.

McAuliffe had been pastor of St. Elizabeth’s since 1997 and also served as vicar general of the diocese, second only to Pepe. Before coming to Las Vegas, he served as a priest in Wisconsin. He was placed on administrative leave from St. Elizabeth’s in June when the FBI alerted the diocese of its investigation.

He is now gone for good.

As a member of the diocese’s finance committee, McAuliffe was responsible for compiling financial reports and had access to the church’s bank accounts and cash in its safe. McAuliffe also admitted he wrongly reimbursed personal credit card expenses with church funds.

In his plea agreement, McAuliffe said that between 2008 and 2010 he knowingly signed and submitted false financial statements in annual statements mailed each November to the Archdiocese in San Francisco, leading to the mail fraud charges.

U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in an email said he couldn’t discuss what the priest might have done with the money — or if he even knew the answer to that question — or how the thefts were brought to the attention of authorities.

McAuliffe’s attorney, Margaret Stanish, was not available for comment.

The church cooperated with investigators, according to the diocese and Bogden. “We respect the workings of the justice system and would add that the federal authorities have handled this matter with fairness and sensitivity,” Pepe said. He also said the diocese is putting safeguards in place to prevent future incidents.

While McAuliffe held a prominent position in the diocese, there is no evidence any church other than St. Elizabeth’s was victimized. But he was responsible for paying to the diocese 13 percent of St. Elizabeth’s annual income from the contributions and collections of its members.

The U.S. attorney’s office said McAuliffe hid the thefts by consistently under-reporting the church’s income. St. Elizabeth’s is one of the largest Catholic churches in Nevada with more than 10,000 families in its membership.

One of those members is Ed Graveline, whose family joined St. Elizabeth’s about two years after it was founded in 1991.

“It’s very hard to swallow this,” Graveline said “This is very, very difficult. I will struggle with this for a long time.”

Graveline said McAuliffe was a “wonderful” priest, but he wasn’t outgoing or personable. “I’d say half the people love him and the other half don’t because of that personality,” he said.

Graveline attended Mass on Thursday night and said McAuliffe, Father Kevin to parishioners, delivered “his usual great homily,” the commentary delivered after a reading of scripture.

“I didn’t notice anything different about him except he didn’t look well. He looked so thin.

“I’m saddened,” Graveline continued. “I’m very saddened.”

“This is totally unbelievable,” said Normandie Kneeland, another longtime parishioner and one of McAuliffe’s fiercest defenders as the case unfolded amid rampant speculation. “All the years I knew him, I never saw this side of him,” she said. “I don’t understand. I don’t think any of us will ever understand.”

Graveline said McAuliffe’s willingness to plead guilty is a form of repentance and worthy of forgiveness. Kneeland said she will continue to pray for him.

Pepe thanked church members and employees of St. Elizabeth’s for their patience and understanding.

“It goes without saying that I am greatly saddened that all of the good and worthy actions that happen every day within the Catholic community of Las Vegas, and particularly St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, may be overshadowed by this situation,” he said.

McAuliffe’s sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 6. According to the U.S. attorney’s office, he faces a maximum term of 20 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The diocese has faced financial scandal before in recent years. In February 2007, the diocese relieved the Rev. William Kenny of his duties as pastor of Christ the King Catholic Community. A sealed 2006 District Court lawsuit filed by a longtime Christ the King parishioner and worker centered on allegations that Kenny tried to take control of her finances and spent more than $300,000 of her money. Family members said Kenny confessed to them and apologized in a letter.

Kenny was reinstated that March. McAuliffe, then the vicar general for the diocese, said, “The issues surrounding Father Kenny’s suspension have been resolved with certain guidelines and parameters for Father Kenny going forward.”

Contact Doug McMurdo at dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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