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Police charge Westmoreland County priest in $124,000 theft case

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 10:59 a.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Emil Stephen Payer (left), 69, of Unity Township, leaves his arraignment on theft charges with his attorney, Thomas Merrick, at the office of District Judge Charles Moore in Scottdale on Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Payer is charged with taking money from Church of the Seven Dolors in South Huntingdon.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Emil Stephen Payer (left), 69, of Unity Township, leaves his arraignment on theft charges with his attorney, Thomas Merrick, at the office of District Judge Charles Moore in Scottdale on Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Payer is charged with taking money from Church of the Seven Dolors in South Huntingdon.

Tom DeRose might return to church now that the Roman Catholic priest at his parish has been charged with taking $124,000 from the coffers.

DeRose said he has rarely stepped inside Church of the Seven Dolors in Yukon during the past few years in protest.

“I'm very happy,” De-Rose, 61, of Ruffsdale said on Tuesday when he learned that the Rev. Emil Stephen Payer, 69, of Unity, had been arrested after a three-year investigation. “It's been a long time.”

Payer surrendered Tuesday morning and faces multiple counts of theft from October 2008 and August 2011. He is free on his own recognizance. Police say he drained funds from parish bank accounts, using the stolen money to pay credit card balances, to travel and to bolster a private tour business he operated.

Payer remains on administrative leave from the Diocese of Greensburg, where he has been a priest for 40 years.

Defense attorney Thomas Merrick of Pittsburgh declined to comment after the arraignment.

The probe leading to Payer's arrest began after DeRose and other parishioners raised concerns about the condition of the church's finances.

Those concerns led the diocese to announce in April 2011 that the church was being audited.

During that time, Payer continued to handle pastoral duties, but church business was administered by another priest.

Four months later, Payer was placed on leave, and a criminal investigation began.

Diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt said Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt issued a series of revised financial procedures in July 2012 to all churches to avoid a similar situation in the future. Financial reviews are performed biennially at every parish.

“Financial accountability in a pastor or anyone else handling parish funds is extremely important, and the diocese takes its oversight responsibilities in this area very seriously,” Brandt said in a statement.

County Detectives Thomas Horan and Paul Burkey examined three church accounts during the painstaking review of the flow of cash in and out of the parish.

Church employees told detectives that funds quickly disappeared after Payer became pastor in October 2008.

“Once Father Payer came, he began to spend money from the parish accounts at a rapid pace,” detectives said in court documents. A church secretary “also had a difficult time paying bills because the general account was being depleted.”

Finance council meetings became very brief or nonexistent once Payer arrived, parishioners told the detectives. During one of those meetings, two parishioners confronted Payer about $45,000 missing from an account, according to the complaint.

“Father Payer replied by stating, ‘I bought a lot of things including light bulbs and batteries,' ” detectives said.

Investigators could find no documentation for $91,124 from church accounts, according to court documents. Police allege those funds were used for expenses not related to Seven Dolors, such as payment for a credit card held by Payer, travel and advertising expenses for trips, and checks written out to either Payer or “cash.”

Some of the expenses apparently were related to the independent, escorted tours to Rome and Israel that Payer operated.

The church secretary told detectives that an annual postage bill of about $700 grew to approximately $30,000 per year once Payer arrived, according to the affidavit. Some of the charges were legitimate parish business, but a portion of the money went toward bulk mailings that Payer distributed outside the parish for the overseas trips he frequently took, court documents indicate.

Federal records show Payer filed for bankruptcy in April 2012, listing assets of $45,165 and liabilities of $38,816. County detectives reported Payer deposited more than $347,000 into his personal bank account between 2009 and 2011, according to the affidavit.

In addition, he ran up more than $100,000 in credit card debt. His bankruptcy petition listed $38,816 as debt from 12 credit cards.

Payer allegedly was requesting $2,000 loans from friends and acquaintances, according to a letter obtained by detectives in August 2011.

Individual parishes are responsible for paying their priests' salaries and health insurance, according to the complaint. Payer was paid about $2,600 a month, according to court records. Diocese-approved expenses can be reimbursed up to $4,800 annually with supporting receipts, but a priest is responsible for vehicle-related costs, clothing and trips.

Payer faces charges of receiving stolen property, misapplication of entrusted property, four counts of theft by deception and two counts of theft by unlawful taking.

He waived his right to a preliminary hearing on Tuesday during an arraignment before District Judge Charles Moore. A formal arraignment is scheduled for April 30.

Payer was assigned to St. Mary, Our Lady Guadalupe in Kittanning from 2000-08.

The Rev. Jonathan J. Wisneski is current pastor at Seven Dolors.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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