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FATHER DAVE’S FRIENDS

The Rev. Dave Casaleggio doesn’t apologize for the company he keeps.

The 60-year-old Roman Catholic priest and chairman of the Las Vegas Housing Authority remains steadfastly loyal to his most controversial friends, even when questions about the friendships land him in the newspaper or, in one recent instance, before a federal grand jury.

Casaleggio, known to many as "Father Dave," doesn’t seem to care much what others might think of his hanging out with the likes of former Crazy Horse Too owner Rick Rizzolo or former Las Vegas City Councilman Michael McDonald, each of whom has borne his share of negative press over the years.

He uses the example of Jesus to back him up.

"It wasn’t the perfect people Jesus went after," Casaleggio said. "It was the prostitutes, tax collectors and public sinners he cared about. I’m not saying they (Rizzolo and McDonald) are public sinners. But church isn’t about perfect people. It’s about struggling and failing."

Rizzolo was released last month from federal prison, where he served about a year for tax evasion.

Then, almost immediately, his name was all over the news again when auto repair shop owner James "Buffalo Jim" Barrier, with whom Rizzolo had a years-long feud, was found dead under mysterious circumstances at a Boulder Highway Motel 6.

McDonald lost a 2003 re-election campaign after run-ins with city and state ethics boards and being tied to an FBI investigation into political corruption.

While still on the City Council, McDonald borrowed about $30,000 from Casaleggio.

That loan led to the priest’s questioning by federal prosecutors last year in connection with a tax fraud case against McDonald.

Casaleggio said it was "stressful" to be served a subpoena while he was at work at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, where he was the chaplain at the time.

He also has taken some flak over his friendship with Rizzolo.

But he mostly shrugs all that off.

"I’m not going to walk away from friends once they got controversial," Casaleggio said last week in his office at St. Anne Catholic Church, his parish since February. "I’d be less of a human being if I let it change me."

Friends say Casaleggio practices what he preaches.

"If you’re a friend of Father Dave’s, you’re a friend whether you’re up or down," said McDonald, who describes himself as a devout Catholic.

McDonald, 43, said his friendship with Casaleggio dates back more than a decade; Casaleggio once was his priest.

Now, "he’s probably one of my closest friends," McDonald said. "All the holidays he’s at our house, celebrating with our family."

He said it was unfair that Casaleggio "got blasted" for loaning McDonald that money, which the younger man said he needed to pay his taxes at the time.

"It was so innocent, and people tried to make so much out of it," McDonald said. "It was tough for him on Sundays, sitting in front of hundreds of people who had questions about that."

But, "people who know him know he would never do anything illegal," McDonald said.

Casaleggio said federal authorities suggested the loan originated from Rizzolo, and was a payment to McDonald that was filtered through the priest’s bank account.

But Casaleggio emphasized he didn’t engage in any illegal activity. After McDonald told him he needed the money, Casaleggio, whose parents had died and left him a home in San Francisco, agreed to loan it to him, he said.

McDonald has vowed to pay Casaleggio back as soon as one of his local development projects is successful, and Casaleggio said he doesn’t doubt he’ll see the money again.

Asked about his own current relationship with Rizzolo, McDonald said: "I’ll let him define it."

Rizzolo initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, then changed his mind.

Casaleggio said he formed a friendship years ago with the former strip club owner when Rizzolo’s children attended Our Lady of Las Vegas School. The two have become very close.

"I buried Rick’s mom. I baptized his grandkids," Casaleggio said.

Their friendship has endured despite Casaleggio’s disapproval of what Rizzolo used to do for a living.

"I had arguments about the business with Rick," he said. "But his club was not why he’s my friend. He’s a good human being who happens to have had a business in something I totally disagree with. I’m not trying to defend him, but I’m not involved in that part of his life in any way, shape or form."

Further, he said, "Jesus didn’t walk away" from people he disagreed with. "He challenged them."

Casaleggio admits that it takes a different type of priest to willingly subject himself to the kind of controversy such friendships bring.

But it also takes a different type of priest to happily work with prisoners of various religious faiths who have been locked up for sometimes heinous crimes, which Casaleggio did for years, said another of the priest’s friends, the Rev. Jim Bevan.

"There are some guys in the priesthood, they do a good job, but they deal with the average parishioner who may have some small spiritual problem, nothing heavy," said Bevan, who has known Casaleggio for 25 years.

Casaleggio, on the other hand, decided that "even people who have a less than admirable public image need the ministry of the church," Bevan said. "They need healing, and most people would avoid them. But his (Casaleggio’s) idea is, you know, ‘They’re God’s children, they need help, and I’m not going to turn my back on them.’"

Ministering to such people "inevitably leads to a friendly, personal relationship with them," Bevan said.

"You can be friends with somebody without adopting their lifestyle and without compromising your own integrity. He is very good at that."

Casaleggio’s willingness to embrace such parishioners may stem in part from his having come to the priesthood in a somewhat roundabout way.

Always fiercely independent, at 15 he left home in California, where he was raised Catholic, and "did a lot of stupid things," which he wouldn’t specify. He didn’t graduate from high school.

Casaleggio eventually joined the Army, where he served three years, including one in Vietnam. While in the military, he earned his GED.

Afterward, he worked for years for a finance company, but that "wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life," he said.

"I looked back on who had affected me most, and it was the priests and nuns I really respected. I decided to follow in their footsteps."

At 28, Casaleggio went into the seminary.

He has lived in Nevada since he was ordained.

Casaleggio has a lot of friends, he points out, from all walks of life. Most don’t invite much controversy and don’t usually make the news.

One of those friends is Tony Ritz, a 37-year-old correctional officer at the prison who has known Casaleggio for seven or eight years and also serves as the priest’s early morning workout partner.

Ritz said his three young children love Casaleggio.

"He pulls up and they’re running out the door, yelling, ‘Father Dave! Father Dave!’" Ritz said. "He’s just a big kid. He’ll tell them, ‘Hey, let’s get Daddy!’ And he’ll tackle me, and then my kids are piling on me too like a giant wrestling match. He’s become part of my family."

Ritz defended Casaleggio’s controversial friendships.

"Trust me, I have friends that have done things I wouldn’t be happy with," he said. "I’m not going to end a friendship over it. That’s one of his endearing qualities. He doesn’t hold a grudge. You’d have to do a whole heck of a lot to ruin a friendship with Father Dave."

Casaleggio admits to "being more public than a lot of priests," especially in terms of his friendships.

But, he said, "there’s no one I’ve ever been friends with that doesn’t know I’m a priest and what I stand for. Anyone I deal with knows who I am."

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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