Priest defends use of church money - Fox29 WFLX TV, West Palm Beach, FL-news & weather

Priest defends use of church money

By Chuck Weber email

WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX)-A priest told a jury the discretion granted him by the Catholic Church, justified his use of a parish's money for the benefit of himself and his friends. On Friday Father Francis Guinan took the witness stand in a West Palm Beach courtroom. He testified in his own defense for about two and a half hours.

Guinan is on trial, accused of stealing more than $400,000 from St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach, where he served from 2003 to 2005.

Prosecutors had presented evidence Guinan helped himself to church funds. They said he took the money for himself, made thousands of dollars in payments to a former bookkeeper at another church he served, and paid his own credit card bills-- which included dining and gambling trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas.

But defense witnesses told jurors every Catholic Church has "slush funds," and that the Diocese gives priests a so-called "right of discretion," permission to spend $50,000 any way they see fit.

Guinan's lawyer Richard Barlow asked his client on the witness stand, "Do you think you had a right to have the church pay those credit card expenses under your right of discretion?"

"Yes I did," answered Father Guinan. Asked to explain, Guinan replied, "Number one was the fact of the right of discretion. I have the right to make that decision."

Guinan also said parishioners at St. Vincent wanted him to look after the church's former priest, Father John Skehan. At one point, though, Guinan acknowledged some of the trips "extended" his discretion a bit.

Explaining the payments to the bookkeeper at a previous church, the priest said she was dismissed from her job without a severance. Again he had the leeway to do that under Church policy.

Also on Friday, an accountant hired by the defense, Martin Cass, testified a Diocese accountant had failed to detect more than $100,000 in church bank deposits. Cass said by his calculations, Father Guinan stole nothing from the church.

Closing arguments are set for Monday morning.

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