Wednesday 10 April 2024

Florida woman facing trial for $700k parish theft

Holy Cross Catholic Church – 500 Iris ... 

A former parish administrator could be in court next month, facing charges that she siphoned off nearly $700,000 from the Florida parish where she worked for more than two decades.

Deborah True, 70, is charged with felony grand theft, and has pled not guilty to the charges, claiming that Fr. Richard Murphy, the deceased former pastor of the parish, gave her the money as a gift.

Police in Vero Beach, Florida, began investigating True in December 2021, when the Diocese of Palm Beach reported its suspicion that Murphy and True had embezzled more than $1 million from Holy Cross Catholic Parish between 2012 and 2020, according to court records obtained by The Pillar.

According to a police report, the diocese discovered the possibility of embezzlement in late 2020, after Murphy died in March 2020, thereby vacating his office as parish pastor, and True retired soon after.

When a new pastor was appointed to the parish, a parish bank account was discovered which the diocese had been previously unaware of, and which had not previously audited, or mentioned in parish financial reports. 

The account, which was opened in 2012, listed only Fr. Murphy and Deborah True as signatories.

According to bank records, $1,466,331 of parish funds were deposited into the account. 

Hundreds of thousands were used to pay True’s credit card bills and loans, while nearly $150,000 was written in checks from the account to True personally, which were deposited into her personal bank accounts. 

In May 2020, two months after Murphy’s death, True closed the account, withdrawing the $811.38 balance in cash.

“In total, $549,289.62 of the funds of the Holy Cross account were used to pay off Deborah True’s personal lines of credit. 

An additional $147,037.98 was deposited directly into Deborah True’s personal checking accounts. $811.38 was [the] final withdrawal and closing transaction, also payable to Deborah True,” the police report explained.

“Grand total, $697,138.98.”

Because bank records were not available to police from before 2015, it is possible more of the money was also directed to True or her creditors before that time. 

But available records indicate that True stole slightly less than half the money deposited into the secret account she maintained with Murphy, suggesting that the priest also stole significant amounts of money from the parish. 

The police report indicated as much, confirming “checks addressed to him and payments made to his creditors.”

“However, due to his death, no criminal investigation took place to identify an exact amount,” the report said. The report indicated that checks from the account were only issued to Murphy and True.

Before she began working at Holy Cross Parish, True worked as parish administrator at a nearby parish, where Murphy had also served as pastor. When he was appointed to Holy Cross in 1997, he hired Tues to work with him.

In September 2022, True told police that she had not disclosed the previously unknown bank account to the diocese because Murphy directed her not to. 

True also admitted to police that she had used the bank account money to pay off her personal debt, “claiming that she was given permission by Richard Murphy.”

The woman told police that she had “not thought about” the fact that money in the account had come from parishioners, though she admitted that she deposited checks written by parishioners into the account.

While only a very small percentage of parish priests and employees have been accused of committing financial crimes, documented examples of fraud, theft, and embezzlement in the Church are on the rise in recent years. 

A scholarly article published last year on financial misconduct among American clergy found that priests who steal are often motivated by resentment, envy, and a desire to cover up for other moral lapses.

Researchers Robert Warren and Timothy J. Fogarty compiled documented financial crimes committed by American Catholic priests in the last six decades. They looked at environmental and personal factors, aiming to understand how parish pastors and administrators can be tempted into large-scale theft from their parishes. The scholars’ findings were published in the January-June issue of the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting.

The research found that parish priests “would seem to have a strong ability to commit fraud,” because “they command local positions of unchallenged authority over cash-generating operations with weak internal controls that would detect or deter the misappropriation of resources.”

More than half of the cases studied showed that priests spent stolen or misappropriated funds “primarily to support a lavish lifestyle.”

Priests who steal often rationalize their conduct, the report said, with a kind of “moral licensing” — believing that taking parish money, or using it for personal benefit, was justifiable self-compensation for hard work, long hours, or even a more general lack of remuneration or appreciation for other good behavior.

While lay parish theft is a less-studied phenomena, the motives in some cases have been similar.

Several recent cases in which lay employees and clergy have been caught stealing have come through diocesan audits of parish finances.

True’s case has had several continuances since she was charged in September 2022, but a trial could begin next month. 

While a conviction could lead to several years in prison, it is also possible, given True’s age, that she be sentenced to a period of probation and ordered to make restitution.

Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University and a retired IRS investigator, has told The Pillar previously that courts are often disinclined to sentence offenders to prison if they are convicted of stealing from churches.  

But prison terms serve as “general deterrents” for others who might consider stealing from churches, Warren has argued, especially those in positions of trust, who have ample opportunity to commit crime.

Murphy, a native of Ireland, was ordained in 1965 as a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami. The priest subsequently incardinated in the Diocese of Palm Beach, which was established in 1984. 

In addition to his ministry as a pastor, Murphy oversaw an affordable senior housing project at Catholic Charities, and worked in the diocesan chancery’s building and real estate development office.