FBI investigating alleged financial wrongdoing at St. Peter Claver Church

Audit found that priest, who has also been accused of rape, may have misappropriated nearly $400,000.

The Rev. John Asare-Dankwah at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019.

By STEPHANIE RIEGEL

An FBI probe involving the Archdiocese of New Orleans is investigating allegations that the former pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Treme who was removed from his post last year after being accused of raping a child years earlier may have misappropriated nearly $400,000 in parish funds.

The archdiocese on Tuesday confirmed that in September 2021, it turned over an audit to federal investigators that identified some $368,682 in questionable payments allegedly made by the Rev. John Asare-Dankwah to himself or on his behalf while he was pastor of the church.

“In the months that followed Fr. Asare’s removal as pastor from St. Peter Claver, financial discrepancies at the parish came to light,” archdiocesan spokesperson Sarah McDonald. After the audit was completed, “the archdiocese turned over the findings in that audit to federal authorities for investigation and continue to assist with this ongoing criminal investigation.”

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that the FBI was looking into sexual abuse allegations in the archdiocese stretching back decades. The AP said the FBI was focused on whether clergy had taken children to other states to molest them, potentially in violation of the federal anti-sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act.

The archdiocese told the AP that it wasn’t aware “of any federal investigation into clergy abuse.”

A spokesperson for the FBI field office in New Orleans did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The allegations concerning Asare-Dankwah only came to light Friday when a federal judge overseeing the priest’s case — which is related to but separate from the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings — made the audit report public.

Complete Article HERE!

Former Dolphins chaplain Leo Armbrust accused of sex harassment

Leo Armbrust

By Jane Musgrave

Leo Armbrust was never your typical Catholic priest.

Serving as chaplain to the Miami Dolphins, University of Miami Hurricanes and even briefly for the Dallas Cowboys, on weekends he was as likely to be seen pacing the sidelines shouting at trash-talking linemen as he was preaching the word of God to devout followers at Our Lady Queen of Apostles in Royal Palm Beach.

Known for his quick wit and a penchant for off-color jokes, Armbrust rubbed shoulders with famous athletes, business tycoons and community leaders. His well-placed connections helped him when he set off on a multi-million-dollar fund-raising odyssey to establish a Father Flanagan-style village for troubled and neglected teens.

However, 15 years after he founded Vita Nova, a less ambitious, but well-respected agency that provides housing and other assistance to hundreds of young adults no longer eligible for foster care, Armbrust is being accused of all manner of wrongdoing.

In a lawsuit filed this month in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, a former Vita Nova board member claims Armbrust, who left the priesthood in 2009, used agency accounts as his personal piggybank to fund a lavish lifestyle. In her lawsuit, Barbara McMillin accuses Armbrust, 63, of spending his days at the office trolling the Internet for sexual partners.

Further, she says, he harassed employees with crude behavior, obscene photos and anti-Semitic jokes. In at least one case, she says in her lawsuit, the agency was forced to pay a worker $200,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

Her claims are salacious, provoking strong denials from agency officials and Armbrust supporters. However, the Wellington woman didn’t merely lay out her claims and leave it at that.

As part of her lawsuit, she attached confidential reports and internal memos that appear to shore up at least some of her allegations. They reveal Armbrust’s relationship with a hip-hop musician as well as statements from top staff that he was undermining Vita Nova’s work. Further, she said, she plans to send the information to law enforcement officials in hopes they will investigate.

‘Obviously, not happy’

Attorney Jack Scarola, who is being sued along with Armbrust, Vita Nova and several others, scoffed at McMillin’s attack. He said McMillin is simply trying to get back at him and Armbrust for filing a lawsuit against her and other board members for attempting to boot the former priest out of the agency he founded. While the other board members in February agreed to settle the lawsuit, award Armbrust an undisclosed amount in back pay and give him his job back, McMillin refused. So, he said, the litigation against her will continue.

“She obviously is not happy about that circumstance and has responded in what appears to be a very irrational fashion by suing everyone in sight,” Scarola said.

Attorney Gerald Richman, who filed a different lawsuit against McMillin and other board members on Armbrust’s behalf, voiced similar views. “Barbara McMillin has been extremely antagonistic toward Leo,” he said. “It’s almost like a vendetta.”

McMillin, a former CEO of Kids Sanctuary who has worked for children’s service agencies for decades, said the lawsuits Richman and Scarola filed prompted her to do some serious soul-searching about what she witnessed during her five years on Vita Nova’s board.

While she signed onto the settlement of the lawsuit Richman filed, she became suspicious when she said her own attorney wouldn’t reveal the full terms of the agreement that was hashed out with Armbrust to resolve the suit Scarola filed. She said she was appalled by the idea of giving Armbrust $100,000 to $200,000 in back pay and allowing him to return to his job as agency fund-raiser when he had proved so inept at raising much-needed cash.

“They can call me a mean old lady or whatever they want to do,” the 67-year-old said. “I just wouldn’t have felt I had done what was necessary for the kids if I hadn’t thrown this out there.”

And throw out she did.

As part of the lawsuit, she released an investigation the law firm Akerman Senterfitt did in 2012 in response to a grievance former employee Terry Sullivan filed against Armbrust.

In interviews with Akerman attorneys, Sullivan recounted the unprovoked tongue-lashings she received from Armbrust. He forced her to mend his clothes, wrap Christmas presents and go with him to pick out presents during the work day. On at least one occasion, she saw pornographic images on his computer, she told investigators.

When he began a relationship with hip-hop artist and rapper Jeancarlos Correa, who uses the stage name Remynd, Armbrust told her to prepare packages at agency expense to promote the struggling musician’s career, she said in the report.

In one instance, he asked her to order T shirts to promote Remynd’s album, “Sex and Computers.” Featuring a blow up doll with the word “Censored” stamped between its legs, the album cover image was so offensive to the printer that the agency used that it refused the order. Sullivan also told lawyers Armbrust once called her into the office to look at a sexually laced music video of Remynd, featuring the musician trying to bed a Sarah Palin look-alike.

“Ms. Sullivan said that the video did not make her uncomfortable. She stated that she ‘is not a prude,’” Ackerman lawyers wrote in their report. “However, she felt the video should not be shared in the office.”

Top brass at the agency agreed. Vita Nova CEO Jeff DeMario told lawyers that when he learned Armbrust was circulating the image from “Sex and Computers” among staff and officials from other nonprofits, he told him to stop. He also told Armbrust to stop asking Sullivan to do sewing for him.

DeMario said there were other lapses as well. He said Armbrust sometimes dressed inappropriately, such as wearing a T shirt with a photo of one of the cops from the 1970s TV show “Chips”and the words “Spread ‘em” on it. He said he had heard Armbrust make “inappropriate” jokes about black and Jewish people.

The real problem, DeMario said, was that there was little he or Irvine Nugent, another former priest who was then president of Vita Nova, could do to rein in Armbrust. While both were technically his bosses, as the founder, he had the upper hand.

“If this was anyone else, they would have been terminated,” DeMario told the lawyers. “We have an agency that is predicated on virtues and we are not practicing them in house. What kind of agency are we?”

Scarola said he hadn’t read the report that McMillin attached to the lawsuit. He said he advised Armbrust not to comment for this story. But he said the depiction of Armbrust as a bigot or a sexist is simply wrong.

“There is not an anti-Semitic bone in Leo Armbrust’s body — not the slightest hint of prejudice about anything,” Scarola said. As to those who might have found Armbrust’s jokes offensive, he said: “That’s more a reflection of their over-sensitivity rather than any impropriety on the part of Leo Armbrust.”

Armbrust’s natural exuberance and occasionally flamboyant behavior are part of his charm and the reason he is a successful fund-raiser, Scarola said. “He has excellent community connections with high-profile people,” he said. “He has established these connections with the force of his personality.”

However, there are questions about Armbrust’s fund-raising ability. Before Vita Nova board members agreed to settle the lawsuit Richman filed on Armbrust’s behalf, their attorney described Armbrust’s fund-raising as “abysmal.”

“As the director of development for (Vita Nova Foundation), Armbrust has performed poorly and has failed to bring in sufficient donations that would cover his high salary, his benefits and his assistant,” attorney Roy Fitzgerald wrote. “Since at least 2006, Armbrust has failed to meet the fund-raising budget, although the fund-raising budget was significantly lower than what should be expected.”

According to Fitzgerald’s short-lived counterclaim to Richman’s lawsuit, Armbrust earned $150,000 annually, plus benefits. An assistant made $60,000-a-year. According to industry standards, he should have been bringing in three or four times the $210,000 the agency was spending on his office, roughly $630,000 to $840,000 annually. Records show its investment portfolio declined from $15.7 million in 2006 to $6.2 million in 2013. The agency also gets government grants.

“Armbrust sets his own schedule and does not invest the necessary time and energy into fund-raising or into the organization to understand the programs the organization offers,” Fitzgerald continued. “As such, Armbrust has failed at getting the necessary fund-raising and could do more.”

Since that lawsuit was settled, Vita Nova board members and executives have changed their tunes. They dispute the allegations McMillin is making in her recently filed suit.

“Much of what Ms. McMillin alleges in her complaint is substantially inaccurate,” DeMario said in a statement. “As an organization, we are saddened that Ms. McMillin has taken a path that may harm the very organization that she was once affiliated with and may impact the hundreds of young adults we serve.”

McMillin said that isn’t her intention. She said the organization is a good one and praised DeMario as doing good work against enormous odds.

“I truly hope and I pray that people will support the organization,” she said. “They are doing a fabulous job for kids who need their support. But it just isn’t right to allow Leo to go on and give that man money that should go to the kids.”

Scarola said McMillin may pay a heavy price for her actions. By releasing confidential information she may have put Vita Nova at risk. “Clearly, she had a fiduciary responsibility as an officer of the corporation to preserve the confidence of the corporation,” he said.

McMillin said she’s not worried. “Protecting Leo is not part of my fiduciary responsibility,” she said.

Further, she said, she’s not done. After Easter, she said she plans to ask the Palm Beach County state attorney, Florida attorney general and the IRS to look at the records she has collected. Not all of them are in the lawsuit, she said. She said she has credit card receipts that prove Armbrust was using agency money as his own.

“I’m not trying to destroy the foundation. I am trying to save the foundation,” she said. “He has been looting it for years.”

Complete Article HERE!

Former parish administrator, ex-pastor in Vero Beach use bogus bank account to steal $1.5 million, police say

— Deborah True used more than $500K to pay off personal credit, investigators say

Deborah True

By Skyler Shepard

A nine-month fraud investigation has resulted in the arrest of a former Catholic church parish administrator in Vero Beach after donations were fraudulently deposited for years, police said.

The Vero Beach Police Department announced Tuesday that they were contacted by the Diocese of Palm Beach in December 2021 in regards to a fraudulent bank account and possible misappropriation of funds that occurred over the course of about five years at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach.

Police said the investigation revealed that the church’s former parish administrator, Deborah True, and former pastor, Richard Murphy, opened a bank account in the name of “Holy Cross Catholic Church” in 2012.

Investigators said the account was hidden from the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach.

Father Richard Murphy

Police said bank records show that nearly $1.5 million of parishioners’ donations were fraudulently deposited into the account since 2015.

From 2015 until 2020, officials said True used more than $500,000 of those funds to pay off personal lines of credit. An additional $147,000 was withdrawn from the account and deposited into True’s personal checking account.

The investigation revealed that Murphy also personally benefited from the funds in the account. However, Murphy died in 2020, so police said no criminal investigation was opened against him.

True, 69, turned herself in at the Indian River County Jail on Monday on one count of organized fraud over $50,000. She has posted bail and is awaiting trial.

Complete Article HERE!

Archdiocese ordered to halt payments to priests accused of child sex abuse

A U.S. bankruptcy judge rejected the Catholic church’s argument that it should be allowed to keep paying monthly stipends to staff accused of sexual abuse.

By David Hammer

A federal bankruptcy judge has ordered the Archdiocese of New Orleans to stop paying retirement benefits to five priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults but are not included on a list of more than 70 clergy the local church considers “credibly accused.”

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill issued the order Aug. 31, rejecting the local Catholic church’s argument that it should be allowed to keep paying monthly stipends to priests, deacons and lay staff who face claims of sexual abuse in sealed documents that were turned over to the court by the Archdiocese earlier this year.

From the very beginning of its bankruptcy case in May 2020, the Archdiocese tried to argue that it needed protection from dozens of pending sexual abuse lawsuits, but it should be allowed to keep paying retirement benefits to all living clergy – including those on the “credibly accused list” released by Archbishop Gregory Aymond in November 2018 and updated with additional names over the years since.

Grabill quickly ruled in 2020 that living clergy on the Archdiocese’s official list should not continue to get stipends known as “maintenance” payments, although medical coverage could continue. But she has now taken what she called an “extraordinary” step to amend that ruling based on evidence provided by the Archdiocese this year.

In February 2022, Grabill ordered the church to produce additional internal records from the past 10 years, “including, but not limited to, personnel files, Archdiocesan Review Board … findings, and law enforcement referrals, maintained by any and all departments and offices within the Archdiocese — related to all Archdiocesan priests or lay persons serving in ministerial roles that have been accused of sexual abuse, whether placed by the Archbishop on the Credibly Accused List or not and whether named in a proof of claim filed in this case or not.”

Those records were filed with the court under seal. But when attorneys representing sexual abuse victims saw those records, they argued they “substantiate credible accusations of sexual abuse committed by five priests” who were never included by Aymond on the credibly accused list and, therefore, continued to receive full retirement benefits.

Grabill says those payments must now stop, essentially finding that those priests must wait in line for their claims to be paid just like the abuse victims and other church creditors.

“We continue to evaluate the court’s decision in this matter but currently have no other comment,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.

The five priests whose retirement stipends must end are not named. WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate teamed up on investigations in 2020 and 2021 that exposed claims against living priests and clergy who were not on the credibly accused list. Aymond added a few names to that list, but others featured in the news reports were never added.

Those include Metairie deacon VM Wheeler, who was criminally charged in December with molesting an preteen boy in the early 2000s, and the Rev. Luis Fernandez, who is retired in South Florida and declined to answer WWL-TV’s questions about one of his former high school students accusing him of molesting him in the 1970s.

The church tried to argue that its responsibility to take care of retired priests and deacons is not governed by U.S. federal law but by the Catholic Church’s own laws, known as canon law. It argued that clergy would only lose their retirement benefits if they were laicized — or stripped of their ordination as priests or deacons. Aymond told WWL-TV that he could remove priests and deacons from ministry, but he couldn’t forcibly laicize those who don’t voluntarily agree to leave the priesthood or deaconate.  That could only be done by the Vatican.

Grabill rejected the Archdiocese’s argument that she was overstepping her authority.

Complete Article HERE!

$121.5M settlement in New Mexico clergy sex abuse scandal

One of the oldest Catholic dioceses in the United States has announced a settlement agreement to resolve a bankruptcy case in New Mexico that resulted from a clergy sex abuse scandal

Archbishop John C. Wester, head of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M.

By The Associated Press

One of the oldest Catholic dioceses in the United States announced a settlement agreement Tuesday to resolve a bankruptcy case in New Mexico that resulted from a clergy sex abuse scandal.

The tentative deal totals $121.5 million and would involve about 375 claimants.

The proposed settlement comes as the Catholic Church continues to wrestles with a sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has spanned the globe. Some of the allegations in New Mexico date back decades.

The chairman of a creditors committee that negotiated the agreement on behalf of the surviving victims and others said it would hold the Archdiocese of Santa Fe accountable for the abuse and result in one of the largest diocese contributions to a bankruptcy settlement in U.S. history.

It also includes a non-monetary agreement with the Archdiocese to create a public archive of documents regarding the history of the sexual abuse claims, committee chairman Charles Paez said.

“The tenacity and courage of New Mexico survivors empowered us to reach a recommended settlement that addresses the needs of the survivors on a timely basis,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case seeking protection from creditors in 2018.

The settlement still must be approved by the abuse victims. It includes funds from sales or property and other assets, contributions from parishes and insurance proceeds. It does not include settlement of any claims against any religious orders, lawyers for both sides said.

“The church takes very seriously its responsibility to see the survivors of sexual abuse are justly compensated for the suffering they have endured,” John C. Wester, archbishop of Santa Fe, said in a statement Tuesday.

“It is our hope that this settlement is the next step in the healing of those who have been harmed,” he said.

In New Mexico, some 74 priests have been deemed “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children while assigned to parishes and schools by the Archdiocese, which covers central and northern New Mexico.

Established in the 1850s after the Mexican-American War, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed for reorganization in late 2018 to deal with a surge of claims. An estimated $52 million has been paid in out-of-court settlements to victims in prior years.

“No amount of money can undo the pain and trauma that our clients and their families have suffered,” Dan Fasy, a lawyer who represented some of the victims, said Tuesday. “But we hope this settlement can bring some form of closure and healing to the abuse survivors we were privileged to represent.”