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February 1, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

So many questions linger after priest who stole to gamble is sent to prison

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J. Patrick Coolican

My heart went out to the parishioners of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton outside a federal courtroom Friday. They were there to support Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing $650,000 from church funds to feed a gambling addiction.

They were anguished. Connie Calarco had major brain surgery in 2010.

“He prayed for me. He got me through everything. Anytime you needed Monsignor, he was there for us, even when he was going through his own hell,” she said.

Another parishioner said in his seven decades of Catholicism, during which he interacted with 100 priests or more, he’d never met one as special as McAuliffe. He built a parish from near nothing to more than 8,500 families with a church, school and chapel.

According to his own expert witness, Dr. Timothy Fong, McAuliffe suffers from pathological gambling, major depression and social anxiety disorders.

And yet I also feel for those who feel betrayed. Leaders who abandon and lie to their flock deserve especially harsh justice.

Judge James Mahan cited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

“You abused a position of trust,” Mahan said.

McAuliffe brought shame on a church he claimed to love. And think of the good $650,000 could have done.

The case is a darkened spiritual and moral maze. It forces us to confront the most important questions about sin and forgiveness, justice and mercy, biological determinism and free will. I can find no way out.

Surely he needs to be held responsible for his actions, and he should pay the same price as the thousands of more common thieves in our valley. But he’s been serving people for decades, and he almost certainly suffered from untreated psychiatric conditions for years.

I can understand the prison term, though he’ll likely get no treatment there, and I think he could do as much or more good on the outside in the service of others and the community.

Should he experience the suffering that comes with the loss of liberty in prison? Yes. But hasn’t he already suffered from intense scrutiny, shame and loss of ecclesiastical duties?

If we say that addicts lose control of their behavior, how do we hold them responsible for their behavior?

Complex questions, and I have no answers.

Here’s what I do know, however: Pathological gambling and gambling addiction are real, and they are biological. I found the atmosphere in the courtroom hostile to accepted science.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Brown cross-examined Fong, a psychiatrist who is co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and estimates he has worked with 1,000 compulsive gamblers.

Brown pointed out that McAuliffe didn’t go into personal debt; didn’t tap a $30,000 investment account; stole $50,000 that was used for things other than gambling; did not seek help even though he personally sent other priests to special Catholic addiction centers; and, once caught, managed to quit gambling immediately.

The picture she painted was that McAuliffe wasn’t really a gambling addict — a “hollow excuse,” she called it — and that Fong’s diagnosis of depression and social anxiety disorder were hastily and carelessly made. Instead, Brown suggested McAuliffe was a criminal who stole because he could get away with it and enjoyed the “lifestyle” it afforded him.

Perhaps she’s right. I have no way of knowing. In addition to Fong, Dr. Robert Hunter of the Problem Gambling Center, where McAuliffe is in treatment, also believes McAuliffe is an addict.

But put that aside. Brown was merely doing her job, and she did it well.

I was surprised, however, by Mahan’s attitude toward addiction science. Mahan said he was hoping to see an “objective test or objective manifestation of gambling addiction. I didn’t see anything objective,” he said.

As with most mental illness, there is no “objective test,” no blood or urine test. At least not yet.

But the peer-reviewed science is clear: The mind of a compulsive gambler is different, flooded with the pleasure-regulating chemical dopamine when in front of a video poker terminal. Their brains are different; you could even say damaged.

“Just because you can’t see it, taste it, feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Fong said in an interview after the sentencing.

It’s there. Especially in Nevada, where roughly 100,000 people suffer from pathological or problem gambling.

Will we use this awful story to fix our attention on those 100,000 souls, to reach them and get them help?

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  1. All houses of worship, including Islam, have two doors. The front door is for the honest, sincere, hopeful people with faith who work diligently and fairly to achieve the goals of their own chosen Gospels. The back door is for those who come to count the offerings and plan strategies to maximize their incomes.

    This is a mirror image of a degraded society, that of old Europe, where there were two classes of people, the sheep and the wolves.

    This observation made about Europe by Thomas Jefferson (Author of the Jefferson Bible) during a visit to France.

    Quote: "Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington:
    16 Jan. 1787

    ...under pretense of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe."

    Europe was overrun with Religion in 1787. People came to America to rid themselves of the hypocrites that ruled in the name of reverence. Put religion into Government it will turn America back into the Sheep and Wolf Society of Europe during Jefferson's time.

    Once the Wolves run the legal system, we are doomed. There is no question about this whatsoever.

  2. Gambling addict or not, bottom line is the "good" Monsignor broke one of the Ten Commandments. Commandments he took vows to follow and also expected his parishioners to follow. And if they did not - he expected them to come to him to confess their sins. And he in his position would give them penance and forgive them. That's why Confession in the Church is a joke. Anything coming out of Rome is a joke!

    Dipstick: You are right about "was there not another person doing the books?" A Church that size would have at least two people doing the books. What about the Diocese? What was their part in this? That parish seems to be pretty affluent and I'm sure their weekly collections were damn good compared to other parishes in Las Vegas. IF there was another person(s) doing the books, did they not realize at times the collections were not in the same amount or pretty close to it? Or was the good Monsignor skimming all the time so the money he was stealing was never noticed? I'm curious how he got away with this.

    Nothing ever changes in the Church. I remember when I was a kid, the priests in our Parish used to drive these luxury cars. Back then, you didn't question it. But since priests take a vow of poverty, how were they getting these cars? From their own bank accounts? They DO get a stipend from the Church, but not enough to buy cars like that. The cars were considerd Property of the Parish.

    The only thing that I am thankful for was the dedicated Nuns that taught us our religion. My faith has not waivered over the years, ie the teachings of Christ, but the "man-made laws" coming out of Rome I always questioned and do not agree with.

  3. 'Complex questions' indeed, Mr. Coolican...

    "Mahan said he was hoping to see an "objective test or objective manifestation of gambling addiction. I didn't see anything objective," he said."

    Is the Honorable judge that clueless? He actually said that out loud?

    If you've spent time in Las Vegas and cannot fathom that some people have 'addiction problems' relative to gambling, you are deluding yourself.
    There are literally tens of thousands of gamblers in this town with serious addiction issues...and the casinos turn a blind eye. The phony 'know when the fun is over' campaign is a real knee-slapper.

    The Padre here is culpable in that he stole the money, and stole a boatload of it from trusting Parishioners, and only afterward asked for help.

    As a 'lapsed' Catholic, who grew up in a Catholic Community, and having become privy to many of their 'secrets', I cannot fathom why good, decent, hard-working people continue to blindly 'tithe' to the 'cause'...
    I guess it's because good, decent, hard-working people need and want to trust that 'God's Chosen Disciples' wouldn't bring them harm; it's antithetical to what they've been to believe.

    Would it be bad form to wish the Padre 'good luck'?

    A 21st century justice system that automatically assumes that locking people in cages is either rehabilitative or a proper form of retribution is lacking in 21st century knowledge & wisdom...not that it's NEVER appropriate; just that it's often NOT.

  4. Shykid is right and beat me with his post first the guy is a thief that has cloaked himself in a religious cape so he could commit his crime and then he and his followers want to throw his shame onto the gambling addiction defence. Five years from now he will be standing before a congregation declaring that he didn't understand it then but now he knows it was God who used him as a tool to bring to the eyes of the world that Gambling is wrong and should be done away with. And someone will be handing him money and saying tell it all brother tell it all.

  5. <<det munch; i still remember the plaid skirts the girls wore and the fanny paddle from Sister Demetrius at report card time>>

    I never had to wear the plaid uniforms; that came after my Catholic school experiences! Ours were navy blue jumpers with blue blouses and in high school, navy blue skirts, vests and white blouses. In high school, every morning our homeroom nun would make us kneel on the floor and if our skirts were NOT touching the floor, ie skirt had to be below the knees, we would get a demerit. She would also run her hands thru our hair to see if we "ratted it" (that's what they called it back then, not "backcombed"). Another demerit for ratted hair!! This homeroom nun, Sr. Jerome was her name, flunked me in religion!! Me and two others!! She came right out and said we asked too many questions about our religion - a big no-no - and we would have to wait until we died to ask Jesus himself!! Yeah, the F in religion went over like a led balloon with my parents, who paid a huge sum of $125 a year to send me to Catholic high school!!. As it turns out I left after a year (we moved) and 2years later is when Vatican II took effect and everything changed.

  6. <<As a 'lapsed' Catholic, who grew up in a Catholic Community, and having become privy to many of their 'secrets', I cannot fathom why good, decent, hard-working people continue to blindly 'tithe' to the 'cause'...
    I guess it's because good, decent, hard-working people need and want to trust that 'God's Chosen Disciples' wouldn't bring them harm; it's antithetical to what they've been to believe>>

    Well said. We were conditioned at a very young age about how priests are Christ's disciples that were chosen by Christ to spread His word. We put these priests on pedestals because, after all, they were the only ones that could perform the Holy Eucharist. And we believed it. We believed we HAD to "tithe" so God would look favorably on us. What a crock!! The Church started the "tithing" back in the late 50's, early 60's because THEY KNEW THEN there were problems brewing. It had collected a nice nest egg by the 90's to payoff those abused young men by priests; it had nothing to do with "tithing" to get into heaven. Since the Church is on a major PR campaign to bring us "lapsed" Catholics back, the ranks must have really gone down. Changing a few sentences in the Mass isn't going to do it. John Paul II had a vision for the Church that would have let it grown into the 21st Century and become more modern. Then Benedict came along and set it back a century. Until people realize priests are not infallible, they will come to someone like the Monsignor's defense. Hopefully, for every Monsignor, there are 2 priests who are really truly honest, compassionate holy men and take their vows seriously and live according to Christ's teachings.

    The Monsignor was a gambler and a thief. And frankly, neither are related. He could have spent that money on booze and women or drugs and young boys, but instead he gambled with it. In the end, no matter how he used the money, it was stolen money and he deserves jail time.

    PS gmag: we WERE brainwashed!!!! Every little thing was a sin!! In grade school after receiving First Communion,we HAD to go to confession every month!! What possibly did we have to confess????? We were kids! It sounds silly as an adult, but I have to admit, we grew up respecting our neighbors, where we lived, etc.

  7. As I see it, the priest is not being punished for his illness, but rather the consequences of his actions. When an alcoholic drives and strikes down a pedestrian, his crime is the injuring or killing of another person, an act of gross negligence or worse. Surely the priest had some responsibility to seek help for his addiction. He was capable of describing the difference between right and wrong to his parishioners, how can he claim he did not know better? There is a limit to the extent to which we can expect others to tolerate our shortcomings. I think the priest stepped over the line.

  8. AKsilvereagle's comment reminds me of a joke about this.

    A Baptist minister, a priest, and a rabbi were talking about how they got paid from the weekly collections.

    The minister said he drew a circle on the ground, threw the money in the air, and kept everything that landed inside the circle and gave the rest to God. The priest said he drew a circle too, but kept everything outside the circle.

    The rabbi said he didn't bother with a circle. He just threw the money in the air and figured God would keep what he wanted.