A Michigan priest was convicted of eight felonies Friday, after a jury found he stole more than $830,000 from elderly priests for whom he supposedly helped to care.
Fr. David Rosenberg was convicted by a jury in Clinton County in a decision rendered Feb. 9, in which he faced charges of three felony counts of embezzlement from a vulnerable adult of more than $100,000, as well as felony charges of larceny, taking money under false pretenses, and perjury.
Rosenberg, 72, a priest of the Diocese of Lansing, was convicted of all charges and now faces potentially decades in prison.
He was originally charged in December 2022 with multiple counts of criminal embezzlement, committed against priests living in a Dewitt, Michigan, priests’ retirement home.
From 2015, Rosenberg served as director of a diocesan retreat center adjacent to a diocesan-run home for retired priests.
In a statement Saturday, the Lansing diocese emphasized its concern for those impacted by Rosenberg’s crimes.
“Upon the conclusion of these criminal proceedings, our prayers are naturally with those most affected by Father Rosenberg’s actions, especially the close friends and family of his three victims, each of whom has since died, may they rest in peace,” said David Kerr, director of communications for the Diocese of Lansing.
The diocesan statement emphasized that before his conviction, Rosenberg had retained his priestly faculties, but had been instructed by Bishop Earl Boyea to refrain from public ministry.
While that order remains in effect, a diocesan official speaking on background told The Pillar Monday that the diocese will likely discuss in coming days whether to withdraw the priest’s faculties, and how to proceed with a canonical case against him.
It is not clear whether Rosenberg’s crimes could eventually lead to his laicization.
In September, the Lansing diocese emphasized to The Pillar that Rosenberg did not have an assignment with the retired priests from whom he allegedly stole, and an official of the Lansing diocese told The Pillar last year that safeguards are in place to protect parishes and other institutions from financial misconduct committed by priests.
“Across the Diocese of Lansing, we are currently rolling out a new deanery model with enhanced authority for local deans, and parish groupings within each deanery, to help build greater fraternity and accountability among our presbyterate. In short, to help our priests be healthy, happy and holy – including in the realm of good financial management,” a diocesan spokesmen told The Pillar
“The present process of reform and improvement has been in train since 2019 and, thus, predates the allegations leveled against Father Rosenberg and hence, in that sense, is unrelated to those ongoing criminal proceedings,” the diocese added.
Robert Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University, and a retired IRS investigator with an expertise in forensic accounting and the financial fraud perpetrated by priests, told The Pillar the conviction was “not unexpected.”
“The prosecutors and law enforcement in this case amassed an overwhelming amount of evidence which supported Rosenberg’s conviction, which is typical in these types of cases,” he explained.
“Since 1990, seven Catholic priests have chosen to go to trial instead of negotiating a plea agreement. Of those seven, only one has won an acquittal. Now Fr. Rosenberg faces the prospect of a substantial prison sentence and an onerous restitution order.”
Rosenberg was ordained in 2011, after studies at St. John XXIII Seminary, which forms older, “late vocations,” for priestly ministry. He could not be reached for comment.
The priest’s attorney has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Pillar.
However, in pretrial statements to local press, the priest’s attorney called his client “at worst [...] a holier version of Robin Hood,” the lawyer said in 2022.
In a somewhat contradictory claim, attorney Dustyn Coontz also told the Lansing State Journal in December 2022 that his client was “completely innocent.”
The lawyer also claimed in 2022 that his client was a victim of a clerical witch hunt by the state’s attorney general who “leapt at the opportunity to prosecute” having received “a juicy tip” by way of a hotline set up to receive accusations of clerical sexual abuse.
Rosenberg is due to be sentenced in March.
For his part, Warren predicted to The Pillar that the priest’s legal team will argue for reduced sentencing, and likely canvass for testimony of his otherwise good character and pastoral works from local Catholics.
“If the past is prologue, the defense team will both appeal the conviction and argue for a reduced sentence based on all the good works he has done as a priest. Fr. Rosenberg's team will most likely solicit letters on behalf of grateful parishioners attesting to his good character and many good works,” Warren said, citing a growing list of other cases in which clerics have been found guilty of serious financial crimes.
“Above all, Fr. Rosenberg should not make the mistake of Fr. Rodney Rodis of the Diocese of Richmond, who refused to make any restitution following his conviction, and thus earned a long prison sentence,” he said. “Fr. Rodis died in a prison hospital. Instead, Fr. Rosenberg should take hope that sometimes judges sentence priests to light jail sentences and are returned to ministry, as in the case of Father John Morales of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana. Father Morales was convicted of taking kickbacks from the parish bingo operators, served a brief jail sentence, and was transferred to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles because, according to his obituary, he was tired of the cold weather."
Warren also pointed to the case of Father Douglas Heafner, a priest from the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. “He pleaded guilty to stealing roughly the same amount of money as Fr. Rosenberg, but served only 7 months in prison and is now in charge of spiritual initiatives for offender re-entry program for which a New Jersey cardinal and the currently-indicted Sen. Robert Mendendez serve as 'ambassadors'.”
According to courtroom charging documents, Rosenberg stole hundreds of thousands from three of the priests living in that retirement home.
In one case, Rosenberg was charged with stealing more than $500,000 from the retirement and investment accounts of Fr. Benjamin Werner, who died in December 2018.
Police said that soon after Werner suffered a stroke in January 2018 — and was reportedly suffering from a severely “altered mental state” — Rosenberg had the priest sign a document giving him power of attorney. Rosenberg then placed himself as a signatory on Werner’s checking account, and created a trust, with himself as trustee, allowing him to manage Werner’s assets and open an additional bank account.
But police said that Rosenberg transferred the assets in Werner’s IRA and investment accounts — along with money from his checking account — into a nonprofit corporation founded by Rosenberg, called the FaithFirst Foundation — which was originally incorporated as the Rosenberg Family Foundation.
The FaithFirst nonprofit used some of the money from Werner’s accounts to purchase properties in the region, and to pay off credit card bills, police say. Rosenberg deposited other funds into a string of bank accounts he opened on behalf of the FaithFirst nonprofit.
Another resident of the priests’ retirement home was Fr. Joe Aubin, who was in 2018 removed from ministry after an allegation of sexual abuse which the diocese deemed “credible.”
After an alleged victim reported Aubin to the Lansing diocese, Rosenberg told local media that Aubin had admitted to him “something that happened between and his student 50 years ago.”
In March 2020, Aubin suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. On April 9, he was placed on hospice care.
According to police reports and medical records, Aubin, then 85, was mostly unresponsive, was unable to communicate, and was taking morphine and lorazepam, a drug used for palliative sedation. But on April 13, Aubin allegedly wrote a check to Fr. Rosenberg for $178,022 from his PNC Bank account.
On the same day, Rosenberg opened a joint bank account with Aubin at a local credit union — and deposited into that account the $178,022 check which Aubin allegedly signed.
Two days later, on April 15, 2020, Aubin died.
The next day, April 16, PNC Bank declined to clear the check written to Rosenberg, claiming it was a suspicious circumstance.
The priest then presented himself at the credit union with another check from Aubin’s checkbook — the very next check in sequential order — again dated April 13, and again written for $178,022. But that check was not made out to Rosenberg — it was made out to Aubin, and allegedly signed by Aubin.
When Rosenberg deposited that check in the credit union checking account he had opened jointly with Aubin, the check cleared.
In a November 2022 probable cause hearing, a Michigan criminal investigator told a judge that Rosenberg had admitted he signed the second check.
In the case of a third priest living at the retirement home, Fr. Kenneth McDonald, Rosenberg was convicted of deceiving the priest, promising him that he could make investments through the FaithFirst Foundation, while actually having the priest sign documents by which he donated $122,803.92 to the foundation.
“Fr. McDonald thought he was going to get his money back,” an investigator testified in November 2022, but the “paperwork indicates that that would not have happened.”
The investigator testified that Rosenberg deceived McDonald by providing him monthly payments, which Rosenberg allegedly said were “interest” from his “investments.”
McDonald believed that upon his death, the investigator said, “that $122,803.92 [would] come back to his estate … and according to what we see here on the paperwork that he had signed, that was not gonna happen.”
Speaking about the Roseberg trial to The Pillar last year, Robert Warren said that in his view “bishops have a duty to care for their elderly and infirm priests, especially those with acute physical or mental diminishment. This care should entail engaging elder care professionals such as attorneys, CPAs, and court appointed guardians who understand and will faithfully execute their fiduciary duty on behalf of these vulnerable priests.”
“It is customary for retired diocesan priests to reside in a diocesan retirement home,” Warren noted. “In cases such as these, the bishop must exercise due diligence to appoint someone with the proper credentials, and he should exercise proper oversight through outside audits, surprise inspections, and an anonymous fraud reporting hotline,” he explained.
Warren also noted that Rosenberg’s engagement with the priests was not connected to his official assignment, involving instead the nonprofit organization the priest operated.
Canon law prohibits priests from operating businesses without the permission of their bishops. Warren urged a similar caution about clerics involved in non-ecclesial nonprofit organizations.
“Bishops should be wary of allowing their priests to have ‘side hustles’ such as non-diocesan sponsored not-for-profits, for two reasons. First, it diverts the priest's time and attention to his diocesan ministry — I’m sure if a priest had enough time to run a side business, that his bishop could find a parish that needed confessions heard, marriages witnessed, or Masses celebrated,” Warren said.
“Second, the books and records of the not-for-profit reside outside the bishop's control, so he may not be able to exercise any financial oversight to ensure that there is no cause for scandal, which is alleged in the Fr. Rosenberg case,” he added.
Rosenberg is not the first Lansing priest to be charged with embezzlement.
Fr. Jonathan Wehrle was charged in 2017 with six felony counts of embezzlement, as authorities alleged the priest stole nearly $5 million from the parish where he was pastor. The missing money was detected during a diocesan audit.
Wehrle, who maintained his innocence, died in 2020. Before he was arrested, the priest built a six-bedroom, 11,000 square foot house, which his lawyer said was paid for with family money.