An Irish priest who used parish funds for trips to Las Vegas and presents for his mistress has vowed to win his status as a priest back after getting out of prison early.
When Fr Francis Guinan was sentenced to four years in a Florida prison for embezzling the Church's money, he was also defrocked and banned from ever setting foot in his former parish again.
According to the Irish Mail on Sunday, the 69-year-old priest from Birr, Co. Offaly, insists he is innocent. He hopes that if he is given a chance to explain his story during a Church tribunal review, he will have the opportunity be a priest again.
"What people heard in the court when I was jailed was not the whole truth. There was a picture that was painted of me that was not true. All I can hope is that when my case is looked at again, people will learn different facts. I want my side of the story to be heard. How I have been portrayed is not right. I am innocent," he told the Daily Mail.
"In terms of what I actually did, it was nothing as portrayed in the court. It was made out that I had a mistress. That was not true. It was said I gambled money at the Las Vegas casinos.
"Yes, I was there with friends but there were no gambling sprees. Things were said and I never got the chance to properly explain."
In mid-July, Guinan was released from jail after serving three years and seven months of his four-year sentence.
Fr John Skehan, the former priest of St Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach, was also found guilty of embezzlement.
Guinan was charged with the theft of more than $100,000, but police said nearly $8m had been stolen over a 20-year period. However, due to the statutory limitation on crimes in Florida, both men were only charged with money that had gone missing since 2003.
According to the Irish Mail on Sunday, Skehan, who was 81 at the time, pleaded guilty and was given a 14-month prison sentence. Guinan, who had only been at the church 20 months prior to his arrest, pleaded not guilty.
Judge Krista Marx said he was motivated by "unmitigated greed and unmitigated gall."
After his release, Guinan returned to his home, which was bought before he was convicted, in Port St. Lucie on Florida's east coast.
"In prison, every decision is made for you, but on the outside it is up to you," he said.
"That has been [an] adjustment. I was only away for three years and seven months, but so much seems to have changed. I know I have a smartphone with email but don’t ask me how it works. I’m still trying to find out."
Much of his time is now spent in preparing to face a Church tribunal to plead his case.
‘The Bishop of Palm Beach has agreed that I can appear before a Canonical Procedure. It will be my chance to put my side of the story, one that has not been heard.
‘I do want to clear my name, but I try not to think too far ahead as there could be disappointments. I do feel that I have been betrayed by the Church, as I had given my life over to them.
‘What hurt most during the trial was that the diocese of Palm Beach asked that I be given the maximum sentence of five to 10 years.
‘There was no need for that. One of the men I was in prison with showed me sentencing guidelines, and someone charged with theft of less than $100,000 usually gets probation. I got four years. Where is the justice in that?’
Guinan, who was aged 66 when he was jailed, said his faith was tested.
‘That first night when I sat on my bed, I read passages from the King James Bible,’ he said. ‘It was then I realised I should not indulge in any self-pity.’
At his trial in February 2009, his alleged relationship with Carol Hagen, the book-keeper from his former parish, and his trips with her to ‘Sin City’, Las Vegas made headlines. The court heard that Guinan wrote Hagen checks totalling $43,000 while also using church funds to pay the school fees of her son.
Guinan said he was still in contact with Hagen but denies they had ever been lovers.
‘They tried to make out that we were a couple and that was just not true,’ he claimed. ‘They even said that her son was mine. Not true. He is from Bolivia and is adopted. How can he be mine? Yes, she came to Las Vegas, but so did her son.
‘His father lived in Las Vegas, so he was visiting him. That was never mentioned in court. People saw what they wanted to see.’
He also denies that he paid for numerous trips to Vegas with Church funds.
‘I used to like playing the slot machines,’ he said. ‘One time I ended up winning $1,000, so I started playing the $5 machines. By the end of the night I was up $11,000. That was my own money. When I went to the casinos I was always ahead.’
He said because he was a frequent visitor to the casinos, he received complimentary accommodation. He admitted that he liked gambling.
‘I’m Irish, I grew up with the horses,’ he said. ‘It was a hobby I liked.’
Guinan insisted that he got ‘caught up in the mess’ left by Fr Skehan who, prosecutors said, established a slush fund that contained more than $3m.
According to the Irish Mail on Sunday, which asked him if he stole money from St Vincent’s, Guinan offered a lengthy explanation that blamed the book-keeping procedures.
In 2011, an appeal against his prison sentence was rejected. The court also rejected his plea that the prosecution was an ‘excessive entanglement with religion’ in violation of the US Constitution and the Florida Constitution.
However, Guinan insists that the matter should have been dealt with by Church chiefs. It was his colleagues in the diocese of Palm Beach who alerted police after discovering just how much money was gone.
‘There was no need for it to go to court. The church could have dealt with the matter internally,’ he said.
Guinan said he would like to return to Ireland to see his family as soon as authorities have returned his Irish and US passports.
‘Yes, I would like to go home. I hear that Fr Skehan has travelled back and I would like to go as well.
'My Irish passport has expired and I want to get it renewed. It will be nice to go back home.’
He said he wanted to go back to prison to counsel inmates and spread the word of Catholicism.
‘From my time in jail, I realised that more can be done by the Catholic Church. I would like to do some sort of ministering, but if I can depends on others.’