Priest target of criminal probe - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Priest target of criminal probe

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Posted: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 5:32 am | Updated: 5:35 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has requested a criminal investigation of a longtime East Valley priest after an internal audit revealed a "significant amount of money" might be missing from a 2 1 /2-year-old parish.

Diocese officials said they need help from law enforcement to determine what happened to funds that had been under the control of the Rev. John "Jack" Cunningham as pastor of the St. Mary Magdalene parish in Gilbert, which he founded in July 2002. Cunningham was suspended April 30 after he allegedly celebrated a Eucharistic Mass with the help of a non-Catholic clergyman.

The criminal investigation has no direct connection to Cunningham’s suspension, the Rev. Fred Adamson said in a hastily called news conference late Tuesday afternoon at the diocese headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

But an audit of parish finances, routinely conducted when a pastor is replaced, uncovered irregularities that Cunningham hasn’t explained to the church’s satisfaction, said Adamson, the diocese vicargeneral and moderator of the curia.

The circumstances are similar to another case at the Holy Cross Catholic Parish in Mesa, where the diocese called in police to investigate after an audit uncovered problems with petty cash and credit cards under control of the Rev. Dennis Riccitelli. Riccitelli resigned as pastor Dec. 16, and Mesa police have turned the case over to Maricopa County prosecutors.

Concerned about the possible implications of the two cases, the diocese has established a new task force to review financial policies at all parishes and to recommend possible changes, said Joe Anderson, the diocese’s chief financial officer.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arapio said his office will conduct the new investigation at the request of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. The diocese handed over "a large number of documents" Tuesday and detectives could require months to complete their work, Arapio said. Cunningham couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night. St. Mary Magdalene has grown rapidly since it was established, and now serves more than 1,000 families. Mass is held at the Williams Community School gym at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa as worshippers wait for a church to be built on unincorporated county land within Gilbert.

Cunningham was suspended after a wedding at St. Anne’s Catholic Parish in Gilbert in which Cunningham allegedly allowed a non-Catholic minister to join him in serving Holy Communion, or Eucharist, to Catholics on hand.

The case was turned over to top church officials in Rome after a diocese investigation was "inconclusive," officials said in July. Cunningham has been a priest since 1974.

He started St. Mary Magdalene after leaving St. Bridget Catholic Parish in Mesa, which he organized in June 1985.

The new audit raised concerns about a variety of funds at St. Mary Magdalene including those donated by worshippers and start-up money provided by the diocese that eventually must be repaid, diocese officials said.

Adamson said Cunningham had failed to establish a parish finance council to oversee the priest’s handling of accounts, which is required by church law.

Anderson and Adamson didn’t disclose how much money is involved at St. Mary Madaglene, but said the parish is stable and solvent. The Rev. Donald Kline is serving as interim pastor of the parish.

- Tribune writer Lawn Griffiths contributed to this report

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