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Explosive findings: Archdiocese clergy protected priest who allegedly stole $1M for sex, vacations

A church investigation conducted last year — which has yet to be made public by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York — revealed that a priest who allegedly stole $1 million from two parishes to pay for sex, lavish vacations and a New Jersey shore home was protected for years by clergy at the archdiocese headquarters and avoided criminal prosecution despite significant evidence the archdiocese itself recently found.

After the investigation concluded, the case was sent to Rome and the archdiocese promised parishioners of St. Frances de Chantal in the Bronx and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini on Roosevelt Island that the priest, Peter Miqueli, would be laicized. The parishioners were also promised that the findings would be made public.

But the promise to release the findings has not been kept.

Rev. Peter Miqueli resigned Saturday after a lawsuit against him accused him of stealing church money and paying a male prostitute.

Over the summer, Miqueli’s body was found at his Brick Township home, where he had used stolen money to pay a man for bondage, discipline and sadomasochistic sessions, according to a lawsuit filed several years ago.

Days after his body was found, the archdiocese’s judicial vicar and lead investigator in the case, Father Richard Welch, was transferred to Rome. In a recent email, the New York Archdiocese said the priest’s death put an end to the case, and “no judgment was ever passed.”

“I think the cover-up continues,” Jack Lynch, a St. Frances de Chantal parishioner, said in a recent interview. “He told me he had overwhelming evidence,” he said of Welch.

Parishioners say they are still waiting to be briefed on the findings from the archdiocese’s investigation of Miqueli — and that the findings remain relevant. Linda Heimer, a parishioner of the Roosevelt Island parish, said Welch’s investigation appeared to be “the last chance to do something about this,” and that she had been hoping there would be some restitution for her parish, where the bulk of the money was allegedly stolen. She said that her church should receive proceeds from the sale of Miqueli’s Brick home, which was purchased in 2009 while Miqueli was her parish pastor.

Audio recordings obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com reveal that Welch had planned to turn over financial and other records to law enforcement for a potential criminal prosecution. On the tapes Welch can also be heard saying that he found a cover-up by some clergy within the New York Archdiocese, but did not specify the clerics involved. He said in another recording that those who protected Miqueli no longer worked in the archdiocese headquarters.

“It’s crystal clear exactly what went on in this case,” Welch said in a recording of a telephone conversation with a witness in the case. He said church officials in Rome, who already knew about the case, were “going to see that he was protected” and that there “is no doubt about that. That makes it even more egregious, especially in the climate today. You cannot tolerate cover-ups or hiding this stuff.”

Lynch said the decision by parishioners to file a civil lawsuit against the archdiocese in 2015, which detailed numerous allegations against Miqueli and an alleged cover-up by church officials, came after more than a year of futile efforts to get Cardinal Timothy Dolan to remove the priest from his position as pastor of the Bronx parish. Just days after the complaint was filed, Dolan removed Miqueli from the parish. That satisfied parishioners at the time, and they did not pursue the suit, which courts records show remains unresolved.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

The Bronx district attorney’s office had closed a criminal case against Miqueli in 2017, saying in a press release that the pastor “was improperly reimbursed for over $22,000 in personal expenses from the parish account” but that no charges would be filed. The Manhattan district attorney’s office, led by Cyrus Vance Jr., does not seem to have investigated the allegations out of the parish on Roosevelt Island, which is in its jurisdiction.

After his removal from the Bronx parish, Miqueli was not reassigned, but church officials let him remain a priest until he was suspended from ministry last year. New York Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said in a recent email that he could not discuss the case, but it involved “internal church issues” and “did not involve any criminal charges, civil lawsuits, or allegations of sexual abuse of minors.”

However, a review of the audio shows that, in addition to the financial investigation, Welch was trying to verify an allegation of child abuse against Miqueli that he was made aware of last year. An attorney recently told The Record and NorthJersey.com that one of his clients alleges Miqueli abused him when he was a child.

Tatyana Gudin, who provided the audio recordings to The Record and NorthJersey.com, was instrumental in the New York Archdiocese’s recent investigation. She is the former girlfriend of Keith Crist, who is described in court papers as a male prostitute and Miqueli’s constant companion, spending weekends with the priest at the Brick home, living with him in a Roosevelt Island apartment paid for by the archdiocese, and living for a time in the Bronx parish rectory when Miqueli was moved there in 2012.

Tatyana Gudin with Keith Crist

Gudin, who provided information for the parishioners’ lawsuit, wrote an email to Dolan in 2015, months before the civil complaint was filed, detailing what she knew about an alleged embezzlement of funds from the Roosevelt Island parish and explaining Crist’s relationship with Miqueli. By then, Bronx parishioners had already contacted the archdiocese and started a social media page called “Free St. Frances de Chantal from Fr. Peter Miqueli.”

The 2015 lawsuit, filed by 14 members of the two parishes, alleged that Miqueli and Crist had been stealing money from a thrift shop run by the Roosevelt Island parish and that the priest emptied a fund meant to purchase a pipe organ there, transferring the money to an account he controlled. In the Bronx, a parishioner allegedly caught him skimming $20 bills from parish collections.

The priest, who made a little more than $30,000 annually according to the court documents, allegedly paid Crist $1,000 a week for S&M sessions. Miqueli allegedly bought the Brick home for cash — Ocean County property records show he paid $264,000 and did not take out a mortgage. The lawsuit said he had more than $1 million in assets, including an investment portfolio of stocks and bonds.

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Over the past year, as church officials took a new look at the allegations, Gudin recorded several telephone conversations with Welch, the judicial vicar, and two meetings with him at the archdiocese headquarters — including one attended by three parishioners.

The New York Archdiocese declined a request by The Record and NorthJersey.com to speak with Welch and another cleric involved in the investigation, Father Robert Hospodar, citing the “confidential and sensitive nature of their work.” Neither cleric responded to an email requesting them to go over statements they made in the recorded conversations.

Here are some highlights from the recordings:

April 13, 2019: Welch called Gudin and introduced himself as head of the archdiocese tribunal, a church court that investigates clerical misconduct. Cardinal Dolan had asked him to take the case, he said.

“I have come to the conclusion that both the moral and financial charges as they relate to church law have not been adequately investigated,” Welch said in the recording. “I’m very sorry about that, that you have to be put through this again, and you weren’t — in my estimation — were not adequately listened to the first time around.”

May 9, 2019: Gudin and members of both parishes met with Welch and another archdiocese official to discuss their allegations, many of which had been outlined in the civil complaint.

Welch told parishioners that he would inform law enforcement about his findings: “Whatever we might uncover we’re obligated to then turn over to authorities, the district attorney perhaps.”

And he said the results of the investigation would be made public: “Ultimately our resolution of this matter will go to the media because we have an obligation to make that known publicly, and it will be.”

March 14, 2020: Welch told Gudin in a telephone conversation that the case had been sent to Rome in October 2019, and the file included 2,500 pages of testimony and documents. He called it “the biggest case, as far as just the sheer size of it, that we’ve ever done,” and said there was evidence that Miqueli had been shielded by clergy members who were no longer around to help him.

“In the last year there have been substantial personnel changes in the headquarters,” Welch said. “Anybody who might have been his friend there, they are all gone.”

Welch told Gudin that he had developed a great deal of additional evidence beyond what she and parishioners had provided.

“We discovered a lot more than we thought we were going to,” he said. “We did not know the records were going to be there. We had employees of the archdiocese who knew the whole story — auditors, financial people — and they told us everything.” He added that witnesses included “priests from the archdiocese that were very familiar with what was going on.”

The story continues below parishioners' lawsuit. You can also read it here.

'They're still covering up'

After The Record and NorthJersey.com sent a series of questions to the archdiocese based on the recordings, Zwilling said in an email that Welch “denies making the statements attributed to him in your questions” and Hospodar “also denies that Fr. Welch ever said anything like that in any meeting with parishioners.”

Lynch attended the May 9, 2019 meeting with two other parishioners — Janet Bitner of the Bronx, and Heimer of Roosevelt Island. All three verified the authenticity of a recording of the meeting. Lynch also identified Welch on a recording of a phone conversation supplied by Gudin.

“They’re still covering up,” Lynch said after being told that the archdiocese said the case was closed. “They have no sense of reality. They block things out to say it’s not happening, and things will go away.”

Parishioners at St. Frances de Chantal in the Bronx, where Father Peter Miqueli was removed after a lawsuit was filed in 2015.

Heimer said she had been hoping there would be some restitution for her parish.

Bitner said that she never expected anything to come of the investigation, despite Welch’s assurances.

“There's not much we could get them to do about it when he was alive,” she said. “The likelihood that we could get them to do anything after he's dead is highly unlikely.”

The archdiocese announced Welch’s transfer to the Vatican on July 15, six days after Miqueli’s body was found. Zwilling said Welch accepted an assignment in Rome late last year but the move, originally scheduled for the spring of 2020, was pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allegation of child abuse

The case against Miqueli was expanding into other areas prior to his death. During last year’s meeting, parishioners told Welch about an allegation that Miqueli sexually abused a minor, which they had heard from an attorney. Welch said he wanted more information.

“If this is true, I really want to find out soon because it changes the whole nature of what we’re going to do here,” Welch said. “It’s a much more severe case and we pursue them relentlessly.”

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney, confirmed to NorthJersey.com that the case was his, and he is still investigating it, so he has not yet filed a lawsuit. He said that the alleged abuse took place while Miqueli was assigned to a parish in New York that he declined to identify. The archdiocese did not respond to questions about the allegation.

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As the Miqueli case was pending in Rome, the former pastor's body was found at his Cornell Drive home in Brick on July 9 after a relative called police, saying the family hadn’t heard from him. Miqueli was 57 years old. The Ocean County Medical Examiner on Monday released an autopsy report showing Miqueli's death was caused by arrhythmia resulting from heart disease.Brick police referred questions to the county prosecutor’s office, which said it didn’t have information to provide. 

The Brick home on Cornell Drive that Father Peter Miqueli allegedly bought with cash from two parishes where he worked at is shown Thursday, October 1, 2020.  Miqueli was found dead at the home as the church was completing a new investigation into old charges that had dismissed years ago.

Welch said in the March 14 recording that he expected Miqueli to be “dismissed from the clerical state” once the Vatican examined the evidence. But he said Miqueli had been fighting to remain a priest, refusing a request to be voluntarily laicized.

The archdiocese removed Miqueli from ministry last year, saying he violated an order to avoid “scandal” and “publicity in the media.” Hospodar told parishioners during last year’s meeting that Miqueli resumed his relationship with Crist, which meant that “now everything is back in play.”

Zwilling said in an email to NorthJersey.com that the case “became null” when the priest died. He said that “information concerning any allegations against Fr. Miqueli” had been shared with law enforcement. He did not say whether law enforcement received additional information from Welch’s investigation, as the cleric indicated would happen.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to discuss any aspect of the case, including why it did not investigate years ago. Bronx law enforcement officials said they have not opened a new investigation.

Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the Bronx District attorney, said no charges were filed when the case was closed in 2017 because the archdiocese gave the pastor “free rein in running the parish” and a crime could not be established. “It was more that he violated the administrative rules,” she said.

Bishop Gerald T. Walsh of the New York Archdiocese wrote a letter to Bronx parishioners dated October 26, 2017, saying the money would be repaid to the parish and noting that the $22,000 that the Bronx district attorney’s office had found was inappropriately reimbursed to Miqueli  “is a far cry from the $1 million to $2 million that were alleged to have been misappropriated.” He wrote that “allegations of criminal conduct were found to be unsubstantiated.”

The bishop wrote that “accusations of morally abhorrent behavior were not investigated” because they “did not involve criminal conduct.” He added that the archdiocese had not substantiated those accusations and Miqueli denied them.

Parishioners from Roosevelt Island said the archdiocese never sent them a letter to address the allegations of theft at their parish.

“They’re not that dumb,” Heimer, the Roosevelt Island parishioner, said. “They knew perfectly well it was the Roosevelt Island parish he stole the money from.”

Story continues below letter from Bishop Walsh. You can also read it here.

Zwilling sent a copy of Walsh’s letter to The Record and NorthJersey.com when he was asked recently about the Miqueli case — months after Welch said in a recorded conversation that “we discovered a lot more than we thought we were going to,” and a year after his report was sent to Rome.

The 2015 lawsuit alleged that Walsh was among the archdiocesan officials covering up Miqueli’s wrongdoings. A Bronx parishioner allegedly went to Walsh in March 2014 to provide information that Miqueli had been “misappropriating and diverting parishioner donations for his own personal use.” The suit alleges that the parishioner was fired from a church job “as a result of providing information” to Walsh.

Walsh, who retired three years ago, declined to discuss the case when contacted by phone and referred questions to Zwilling.

Miqueli forces out beloved nun

In their May 2019 meeting with Welch, parishioners explained how Miqueli allegedly profited from a Roosevelt Island apartment when it was offered for sale as a condominium. The lease had been in the archdiocese’s name before Miqueli allegedly put his name on it to receive a buyout of more than $80,000 when he moved out. Parishioners said the money belonged to the church, which had been paying the rent.

“You finally put it together for me to understand how Father Miqueli might have profited off that apartment,” said Hospodar, who attended the meeting as a church prosecutor and has since taken over from Welch as judicial vicar. “This is all coming together now.”

Roosevelt Island parishioners alleged that the most significant crimes took place at their church. Miqueli, pastor there from 2003 to 2012, allegedly fired thrift shop workers shortly after he arrived and forced out a beloved nun who ran the store by accusing her of stealing — then hired Crist to run the business.

Sister Regina Palamara, who served in the parish for 20 years, told The Record and NorthJersey.com that Miqueli was upset by the control she had over the thrift shop, and sometimes grabbed money from her hands at the end of a business day.

"Anybody on Roosevelt Island will tell you how mean he was to me,” she said. “He was so jealous of me. He made it hell for me.”

Heimer, who worked as a reporter covering the story for a local newspaper in 2015, said she determined that the shop took in between $1,000 and $3,000 a week, much of it from purchases made by nearby medical centers.

“You add all of that up and it’s a lot of money,” Heimer said.

Lynch, meanwhile, said it is impossible to know how much money Miqueli took out of the Bronx parish.

A woman who counted money from collections told him she noticed at one point the number of $20 bills had dropped by 50%. She asked Miqueli about it and was told he was setting up a parish fund.

“She said ‘Father, goodbye. I don’t want anything to do with it,’” Lynch said.

The skimming of $20 bills alone could have amounted to $1,000 per week, Lynch said.

He said Miqueli was abrasive with parishioners, and once grabbed $50 from an altar boy who received the cash as a tip during a funeral, saying it would go toward a pizza party, which never took place. When a 15-year-old boy found pornographic pictures on the rectory computer, Lynch said, Miqueli tried to blame it on the boy.

In early 2013, just months after Miqueli arrived in the Bronx, Lynch invited Miqueli to lunch to discuss his demeanor with parishioners and his relationship with Crist. “He said, ‘I’m just trying to help him,’” Lynch said. “He was basically evasive” and didn’t answer any more questions.

In the summer of 2014, bags of unsecured cash from parish collections were found outside the rectory while Miqueli was on vacation, according to the lawsuit. The archdiocese later sent a bishop to listen to parishioners’ complaints, and then sent three attorneys to meet with them. Dolan ordered Miqueli to create a financial oversight committee in July 2015, according to the suit, but Lynch said he does not believe the directive was followed.

“The whole purpose was to keep us on a long leash hoping we’d get tired and go away, but we didn’t,” Lynch said.

Lynch said he did not want to file a lawsuit against the church but eventually believed he had little choice when the archdiocese failed to remove Miqueli.

Zwilling said in an email that “to the best of my knowledge, the parishioners of Saint Frances de Chantal never filed a lawsuit; they announced to the press that they were going to do so, but never did.”

Court records show that the lawsuit was filed Dec. 10, 2015.

Lynch said he and other parishioners “were continually frustrated as much with the archdiocese as with Father Miqueli,” and he was upset by Dolan’s lack of response to appeals for help along with the church’s later attempts to downplay Miqueli’s actions.

“They felt the cardinal had let them down,” he said of parishioners. “I just wanted justice done. I wanted it done by the cardinal.”

Abbott Koloff is an investigative reporter and Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to their watchdog work that safeguards our communities and democracy, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: koloff@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @abbottkoloff 

Email: yellin@northjersey.com

Twitter: @deenayellin