WÜRZBURG - A bad case of “existential angst” is being cited as the driving force that led a German priest to squirrel away more than one million euros that he'd taken from his church’s collection plates and other donations over the course of 40 years.
One curious aspect of the case is that there was no final damage – material, at least. The money is all still there, and will soon be returned.
The fraud was perpetrated by a now elderly Catholic priest in the Laudenbach parish in Miltenberg, Germany near Frankfurt. For decades, the clergyman moved money around in different banks, didn’t book gift donations into parish accounts, and kept the money from some collection plates for himself.
However, the priest did not use the funds to lead a life of luxury, living modestly and even earning a reputation for frugality. A story that people familiar with the case like to tell is that the church organist was expected to return the old envelope on which the priest noted hymn numbers for the Sunday service because there was still some space left for new lists the following weeks.
On Thursday, the Würzburg Regional Court passed down a two-year sentence for embezzlement against the man, now 78. He will not serve jail time, although he will be on probation. He must settle a fine of 16,560 euros and, every month for three years, pay 200 euros to a Würzburg counseling hotline. The remaining money -- 906,745 euros -- goes to the church foundation in Laudenbach. Ultimately, the priest is expected to refund all the money to the foundation, which will add up to over a million euros.
A local church spokesperson said that it was "an important step that the priest had recognized that it was his responsibility to make reparation.”
A kind of compulsion
The exact reason for the embezzlement is not clear. The priest’s lawyer read a statement saying that his client suffered from “existential anxiety” that he would be left penniless in older age, but the defendant himself offered no explanation. "He had a kind of compulsion, needing to feel that he was financially safe at all times,” said the lawyer. One of the things the priest did with the money was to buy an annuity insurance policy. The lawyer added that his compulsion stemmed back to a difficult childhood during the war. After an apprenticeship as a tailor, the priest earned a high school degree and then studied theology. He had been the Laudenbach parish priest from 1969 until his recent retirement.
Shortly before retirement, the priest contacted tax authorities who very quickly suspected embezzlement. Police searched his home and found 133,071 euros in coins and small bills. "It was enough to fill a box too heavy to carry,” an officer told the court. It took four tax officials the entire afternoon to count the money, he added. Police also found a coin collection and a large number of bank accounts in the name of the church foundation that no one at the diocese knew about. Time and again payments were made out of these accounts to the defendant’s pension fund or “for private needs.” The defendant invested the money prudently, earning regular interest.
In the view of the prosecution, however, the priest’s actions had led to “a large loss of assets” for the parish, which knew nothing of the money and therefore couldn’t invest it. Furthermore, the abuse was systematic. And finally the priest was guilty of abusing the trust of those in his pastoral care. The prosecutor had asked for a jail sentence of three years and three months, without probation.
But it turned out the priest had already taken care of his own financial needs so effectively that he never actually used any of the embezzled funds: he had saved more than half a million euros of his own money. Now, however, the 78-year-old is ill, living in a residence for the elderly, and it doesn’t look as if he will be able to go back to Laudenbach to live as he had originally planned. “He wouldn’t dare,” said one woman from the parish who had come to Würzburg to attend the trial. That the parish would at least be seeing the money returned was something, she said, but members of the Laudenbach parish were deeply disappointed by their priest. "It certainly doesn’t do anything for the reputation of the Catholic Church,” the woman said. “Not exactly the best these days.”
Read the original article in German
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