A Co. Kilkenny priest accused of stealing a substantial amount of money from his Florida parish last year changed his plea from innocent to guilty during the first day of his trial on Wednesday, January 21. Father John Skehan, 81, from Johnstown, Co. Kilkenny, and his successor Father Francis Guinan, 68, from Birr, Co. Offaly, are charged with first-degree grand theft of over $100,000. The charges include unlawfully spending sizable amounts of money from St. Vincent's Church in Delray Beach to supplement lavish lifestyles, including gambling, women, the purchase of property and the financing of a mortgage company called SHAG. Guinan, whose trial was delayed to February 18 after assistant state attorney Preston Mighdoll requested a continuance, will continue with his not guilty plea. A letter written by a concerned parishioner in 2006 prompted the state attorney's office to investigate the two Irish priests. After proof of the bilking began to surface, the Diocese of Palm Beach hired a firm of accountants to investigate the parish's finances and discovered some grave discrepancies to the value of millions. An affidavit from accountancy firm Michaelson and Company of West Palm Beach calculated that over $8.5 million of offertory cash was embezzled during Skehan and Guinan's tenure. It could be the biggest embezzlement case to affect the Catholic Church in the U.S. The affidavit also stated that Skehan owned condos in Riviera Beach and Deerfield Beach in Florida and another house in Co. Clare. It also listed a pub in Co. Kilkenny. Also reported in the affidavit is that Skehan deposited nearly $1.6 million in four bank accounts. He used $134,075 to pay for his supposed lover's expenses, while $11,688 was given to family members. He used another $268,630 for personal expenses, including dental work, car payments, property taxes and payments to his credit card. Guinan is reported to have spent up to $90,000 on trips to Las Vegas and the Bahamas where he is alleged to have used the money for gambling and drinking. The priests allegedly hid the money in the church ceiling and in offshore accounts. Although no definite sum of money stolen by the priests can be accounted for, prosecutors believe the pair stole over $8 million in total. Skehan and Guinan, based on limitations in Florida legislation, can only stand trial for the previous five years of wrongdoings. Skehan served at St. Vincent's for over four decades and was charged with taking $370,000 between 2001 and 2006. Guinan, who succeeded Skehan, is accused of stealing $488,000 during the 19 months after he became pastor at the church in September 2003. Skehan, now retired, was arrested last year at Palm Beach International Airport after returning from a trip to Ireland. He was released on a $400,000 bond. Guinan was later arrested upon his return from a cruise and was also released on bail. Skehan's attorney, Scott Richardson, asked the judge last Wednesday to allow him time to provide witnesses who would speak highly of his client. "He was a priest for more than 50 years," Richardson told the court. "We want the court to know all the good he did in this community and for others around the world." Outside the court Richardson told reporters that Skehan accepted responsibility for his actions by virtue of his guilty plea. "It's been extraordinarily difficult for him from the beginning," he said. Skehan was freed on bond on Wednesday. He will face sentencing on March 20 and is looking at a possible 30 years in prison. It is up to the judge presiding over the case to dish out the sentencing. Guinan's attorney, Richard Barlow, told reporters he would "prove his client did nothing wrong" and that Skehan's change of plea will not affect his client's case. "The fact that they were both priests and were at the same church doesn't make my guy guilty," Barlow said, adding that most of the money Guinan is accused of stealing was used to pay church employees in cash.

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