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A Pennsylvania priest is due in court next month over felony theft charges, after the priest was accused of spending more than $40,000 in parish funds in cell phone games. 

Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and Paul. Credit: Beyond My Ken/wikimedia CC BY SA 4.0

Fr. Lawrence Kozak faces a court hearing June 13, ahead of charges that he embezzled $41,179.83 from St. Thomas More Parish in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where the priest served as pastor.  

Kozak, 51, insists that he did not intend to use the parish credit card to support his cell phone game habit, and that he had made efforts both to get his habit under control, and to repay the parish for the charges it incurred.

The priest was reported to police in 2022 by officials in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, after ordinary internal parish audits found financial irregularities in the parish’s records. 

According to a Pennsylvania State Police affidavit, the archdiocese contacted police after it noticed an “astronomical amount of Apple transactions” in the St. Thomas More parish records.

Police found evidence that Kozak had spent more than $214,000 between 2018 and 2022 on Apple charges, mostly on credits for cell phone video games, among them Wizard of Oz slots, Cash Frenzy slots, Mario Kart Tour, Pokemon GO, Candy Crush Friends Saga, Candy Crush Jelly Saga, Credit Sesame, and Willy Wonka Slots Vegas Casino. 

Police identified that of those charges, $43,397 were incurred on the parish credit card.

During interviews with police, the priest said he had not meant to charge the parish credit card for “power ups” in his video games. The card was connected to his Apple ID, he said, to pay for the Microsoft suite on his devices, and when he exceeded credit limits on his own credit with game expenses, his account charged the parish credit card.

Kozak told police that he is not a “detail guy,” and that he had paid $10,600 of the parish credit card balance to repay the charges he had incurred. 

When he was interviewed in October 2022, the priest also told police that he had been seeing a therapist for addictive tendencies, and that he had gotten rid of the games on his phone. 

The priest insisted he had not deliberately used the parish credit card to support his gaming habit, and that he had made efforts to repay the charges. 

Neither Kozak nor his attorney have responded to requests for comment. 

In August 2016, Kozak was struck by a car in Newton Square, Pennsylvania. He faced several surgeries, and reportedly suffered a serious brain injury, in addition to undergoing a partial amputation of one leg.

After his injury, the priest was out of ministry for almost a year, before he was assigned a parochial vicar in June 2017, and was at the same time on the faculty of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. In 2019, he was appointed administrator at St. Thomas More, and in 2020, appointed the pastor. He was removed from ministry in 2022.

As he awaits his June 13 hearing, Kozak is not currently incarcerated. He was released from jail after meeting a $250,000 bail.

Robert Warren, a professor of accounting at Radford University and a former IRS investigator, spoke with The Pillar about Kozak’s case.

“This sad case emphasizes the importance of robust internal financial controls starting with the parish staff and continuing on to the diocese,” Warren said.

But Warren said the priest’s gaming habits seemed to have fallen through the cracks longer than they should have.

“First, Father Kozak should have known to keep his personal financial affairs separate from the parish. Second, the parish bookkeeper had a fiduciary duty to the parishioners, and to Our Lord, to obtain receipts supporting all the transactions, and to raise any questionable expenses to the parish finance council.” 

“Third, the parish finance council had that same fiduciary duty to review credit card charges and accompanying receipts to ensure that all his charges were ordinary and necessary parish expenses. The fact that this went on for more than three years, and included 11,248 transactions, shows that some training is desperately needed at the parish level.”

Warren said it’s not clear how the case will proceed, or what plea agreement the priest might eventually reach.

“Some of the facts work toward Father Kozak's favor. First, he did not hide any of his transactions and it was not a sophisticated scheme. He simply charged video games and gifts for his goddaughter on his parish credit card. Second, he has sought to mitigate the impact of his behavior by making partial restitution before he was charged. Third, he met with the investigating officer without an attorney — something I would never recommend anyone doing — and answered the questions to the best of his ability. Fourth, he sought mental health treatment for addiction issues.” 

Warren said he does not believe the priest will ultimately face prison in the case. 

“If I were Father Kozak, I would not sweat about doing any jail time or losing his incardination, because his behavior pales in comparison to his contemporaries. A priest in the Diocese of Fresno avoided jail time in 2018 after pleading guilty to stealing $200,000 from his parish after fighting the case for years in court.” 

“At the plea hearing, the bishop requested no jail time for the priest,” Warren said, with Bishop Armando Ochoa arguing that Fr. Ignacio Villafan should return to ministry. Villafan is presently assigned a parochial vicar at Fresno’s cathedral. 

Warren pointed to another priest, Fr. David Desmond of the Sioux Falls diocese, who was charged with stealing $80,000 from his parish, and settled with prosecutors by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and serving no jail time. The priest does not presently have an assignment.

Researchers say that mobile phone games are designed to stimulate reward pathways in the brain, and can alter the perception of time. People with mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, can be especially exploited by the neurological effects of such games. 

But psychologist Lisa Strohman told NBC News that anyone can become addicted to mobile phone games.

“Mobile games like Candy Crush are particularly addictive because everything shuffles and changes and then you level up so if you have any competitive nature, you can feel successful,” Strohman told NBC News.

“The [mobile gaming] industry knows that, so they take highly engaging colors and sounds and create a classical conditioning loop that increases the dopamine rewards push,” she added.

Some media reports have documented an increasing number of players who have lost substantial amounts of money on gambling components of cell phone games, or on power-ups, upgrades, and other costly add-ons to usually free games. 

It is not clear whether Kozak has paid off the $170,000 in charges he incurred on his personal credit card in recent years, especially on the salary of a parish pastor. 

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