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Westmoreland judge sentences priest to probation in thefts from Church of the Seven Dolors

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 2:15 p.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.

A Catholic priest sentenced on Thursday to 10 years of probation for stealing thousands of dollars from a South Huntingdon church he once served declined to speak in court and to reporters after a brief proceeding.

The Rev. Emil Stephen Payer, 69, of Unity was ordered to pay $98,033 in restitution to the Diocese of Greensburg.

“Financial accountability in a pastor and the trust parishioners place in him to handle properly parish funds are extremely important,” Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt said in a news release issued after the hearing. “When that trust is broken, it affects the parishioners, the other priests in the diocese and the entire diocese.”

Payer remains on administrative leave and is unable to function publicly as a priest, the release said.

Dressed in a brown suit, Payer answered Judge Debra A. Pezze's questions with “yes” and “no” while attorney Thomas Merrick stood by his side. Merrick declined to comment afterward.

Investigators said Payer drained funds from Church of the Seven Dolors bank accounts between October 2008 and August 2011, using the stolen money to pay credit card balances, for travel and to bolster a private tour business he operated.

Payer was originally charged with taking about $124,000 from the church, but the amount was reduced when his attorney provided documentation that about $26,000 had been used for legitimate church expenses, said Westmoreland County Detective Tom Horan.

“The only things we took off were things that were supported by documentation from Mr. Merrick,” Horan said.

The probe leading to Payer's arrest began after parishioners raised concerns about church 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.

A few parishioners were present for Thursday's sentencing.

Fred Teacher called the probation term a “great miscarriage of justice.”

“I think it's a farce,” Teacher said. “He's going to pay restitution — where's he going to get the money from?”

“I will give no money to the diocese, I will give no money to my church,” he said. “He should've been put away for life.”

Payer pleaded guilty to six charges of theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property and theft by deception. He was ordered to continue mental health treatment and pay $300 monthly toward the restitution.

According to court records, Payer is accused of taking:

• $2,800 from a safe at the church, raised by the choir to purchase robes and sheet music.

• $4,800 in food reimbursements to which he was not entitled.

• $6,678 in checks deposited into his personal account labeled “needy,” “donation” or “homeless.”

Brandt issued a series of revised financial procedures in July 2012 to all churches to avoid similar situations. Financial reviews are performed biennially at every parish.

“Today's agreement by ... Payer to accept responsibility for his actions and to pay restitution to the parish brings some closure for the people of Seven Dolors Parish,” Brandt said in the statement. “It has been more than three years since parishioners brought their concerns about parish finances to the diocese.

“I think this is a fair settlement which allows the parish to recover its funds,” Brandt said.

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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