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The Archdiocese of New York has declined questions regarding the future of a priest who was convicted last year of stealing several hundred thousand dollars from his suburban New York parish. 

An expert on theft perpetrated by clerics told The Pillar that without clear consequences for priests who steal, the problem of financial malfeasance in the Church is likely to continue.

St. Matthew and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. Via Facebook.


Father Robert Henry, 75, was sentenced last year to five years probation, after he pled guilty to stealing $270,155 from his parish, St. Matthew & Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which has churches in Hastings on Hudson and Ardsley, New York.

The priest reached a plea deal in the case, leaving little court testimony to indicate the reason for the theft. But charging documents obtained by The Pillar indicate that the priest stole the money during a single week in March 2022, and that the theft was caught during an audit conducted by the New York archdiocese.

In an April 10, 2022 parish bulletin, Bishop Edward Whelan, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, told parishioners that the archdiocese had notified law enforcement officials about an “improper application of parish funds,” presumably on the part of Fr. Henry.

By the next week, Henry was no longer listed as the parish’s pastor, and a temporary administrator had been appointed in his place.

The legal proceedings against Henry took more than a year, but in May 2023, the priest pled guilty to grand larceny. Henry was sentenced in August 2023 to five years probation and a $325 fine. 

Henry’s sentencing documents did not include a restitution order for the money stolen from the parish. 

The priest is now living in an archdiocesan clergy residence in the Bronx.

While a priest who steals from his parish can face canonical charges, the New York archdiocese did not answer questions about whether Henry will face a canonical investigation or a penal process, or about whether he’s made restitution for the money stolen from the parish.

Nor did the archdiocese say whether the priest continues to enjoy faculties for sacramental ministry.

In response to questions, spokesman Joseph Zwilling told The Pillar that “Father Henry is retired from active ministry.”

While only a very small percentage of parish priests have been accused of committing financial crimes, documented examples of fraud, theft, and embezzlement in the Church are on the rise in recent years. 

A scholarly article published last year on financial misconduct among American clergy found that priests who steal are often motivated by resentment, envy, and a desire to cover up for other moral lapses.

Researchers Robert Warren and Timothy J. Fogarty compiled documented financial crimes committed by American Catholic priests in the last six decades. They looked at environmental and personal factors, aiming to understand how parish pastors and administrators can be tempted into large-scale theft from their parishes. The scholars’ findings were published in the January-June issue of the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting.

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The research found that parish priests “would seem to have a strong ability to commit fraud,” because “they command local positions of unchallenged authority over cash-generating operations with weak internal controls that would detect or deter the misappropriation of resources.”

More than half of the cases studied showed that priests spent stolen or misappropriated funds “primarily to support a lavish lifestyle.”

Priests who steal often rationalize their conduct, the report said, with a kind of “moral licensing” — believing that taking parish money, or using it for personal benefit, was justifiable self-compensation for hard work, long hours, or even a more general lack of remuneration or appreciation for other good behavior.

Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University and a retired IRS investigator, spoke with The Pillar about the case of Fr. Robert Henry.

"Father Henry's case contains a litany of mysteries left unanswered by the public record. This includes how Father Henry managed to steal $270,155 in just six days in March of 2022 from a parish named after the patron saint of accountants — St. Matthew — why he needed the funds, and whether he repaid the funds once he was caught.”

“What is in the public record, however, is troubling enough. Father Henry was sentenced to five years probation and fined $300. He is seemingly still a priest in good standing,” Warren speculated, “and he is living in a home for retired priests.”

“Fr. Henry's light sentence is typical of clergy financial fraud cases, and is in keeping with the 2006 case of Archdiocese of New York priest Fr. John Woolsey, who served one year in prison for stealing $800,000 from his parish, and then was returned to ministry upon his release,” he said. 

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Woolsey, the priest mentioned by Warren, was convicted of larceny after parishioners said he stole more than $800,000 from his Manhattan parish over seven years. The priest was sentenced to between one and four years of incarceration, and ordered to make $50,000 in restitution, in addition to $200,000 he had already repaid by his September 2006 sentencing. 

With Woolsey dubbed the “Rolex priest” in some New York circles, his lawyer said the priest had a problem with compulsive theft — spending much of the money on 50 or 60 expensive watches, along with golf outings and cosmetic dental work.

Woolsey was released from prison after serving less than one year, and was soon after assigned to an archdiocesan retreat house. In 2008, he was assigned as a parochial vicar in the Archdiocese of New York, before eventually taking a medical retirement.

The priest did not appear to have faced any canonical sanctions for his admitted theft.

While the Archdiocese of New York has not indicated that Henry will face canonical charges, Pope Francis has said in recent years that diocesan bishops have been too reluctant to use disciplinary measures to address clerical misconduct— and that their reluctance had compounded both sin and dysfunction in the Church.

In light of that, the Vatican has urged diocesan bishops to more frequently use canonical mechanisms to address both scandal and alleged violations of the law, pushing back on a tendency in many dioceses to treat misconduct principally through a psychological lens, or to ignore the expectation of prosecution for any but the most grave crimes. 

Without canonical measures, clerical misconduct “may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful. For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties. Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully,” the pope wrote in 2021.

For his part, Warren also called for stiffer ecclesiastical penalties for priests who commit canonical crimes. 

“These lenient sentences may serve as ‘particular deterrents’ — so that the convicted cleric himself does not reoffend,” he explained.

“But Fr. Henry's sentence is unlikely to serve the equally important purpose of being a ‘general deterrent’ — meaning that other priests in similar circumstances will be dissuaded from committing a similar crime if given the opportunity,” Warren added. 

“Some will see what happened to Fr. Henry and be willing to risk a similar penalty. A $300 fine and subsidized room and board at a priests’ retirement home just doesn't seem much of a punishment."

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