WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX) - A local Catholic priest, accused of stealing nearly a half million dollars from his former parish in Delray Beach, is guilty, but of a lesser charge. After jurors reached their decision Monday, the judge ordered Father Francis Guinan taken into custody.
Jurors deliberated for two and a half hours before convicting Father Guinan of stealing between $20,000 and $100,000, a second degree felony. Guinan showed no emotion as the clerk announced the verdict, and as a deputy took Guinan's fingerprints. The theft crime carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The original charge was a first degree felony, which has a potential 30 year sentence.
"The priest breached the faith of those in his congregation," said prosecutor Preston Migdoll, following the hearing. "And we're pleased that the jury has found him to be accountable."
Guinan's lawyer Richard Barlow said his client was not happy, but thankful for the conviction on the lesser offense, rather than "as charged." Barlow saw a jury compromise in the decision. "This is kind of a message to both sides," said Barlow. "'We're not happy with you, Father Guinan, for spending the money, but we're not happy with the Diocese of the Palm Beaches either.'"
Barlow had argued the Diocese gave priests a so-called "right of discretion" to spend thousand of dollars as they saw fit, but with no written rules for doing so.
Prosecutors countered Guinan, as head of St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Delray, had an obligation to spend the money for church objectives. Instead prosecutors said Guinan used the church's money for himself, including taking numerous gambling trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas.
Robert Blaine, a friend of Father Guinan's, called the decision unfair. "There were no guidelines, very broad rules, and those broad rules, without specific indications, he did what he thought he could do," said Blaine.
Linda Tomz, who attends a Catholic parish in Jupiter, feels Guinan is guilty of the more serious offense. "The man did wrong," exclaimed Tomz. "He committed an offense of grand theft. He stole from the parishioners. I feel in my heart, if he was a civilian, this would have been pressed further."
The Diocese issued a statement following the verdict saying it is "relieved that the jurors were not swayed by the inaccurate presentation of the defense."
While Judge Krista Marx ordered Guinan taken into custody, she left open the possibility the Sheriff's Office could let him out on house arrest until his sentencing March 25. The range of possible sentences goes from the maximum 15 years in prison, to probation, since Guinan has no priors.
Guinan's predecessor at St. Vincent, Father John Skehan, earlier entered a guilty plea on theft charges. His sentencing is also set for next month.