Criminal charges will not be filed against a Forest Hills monsignor who handed out nearly $2 million in church funds to convicted drug abusers and ex-cons.
However, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens is still searching for answers to the perplexing behavior of Monsignor Thomas Gradilone, 76, former pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced Monday the conclusion of his year-long investigation into financial irregularities at the Queens Boulevard church, deciding that “there does not exist legally sufficient evidence to commence criminal prosecution.”
Gradilone, pastor of the church from 1972 until his retirement last year, was spared due to a legal loophole granting wide latitude to church pastors in administering parish funds.
The pastor’s actions did not fit in the legal boundaries of criminal larceny, Brown said, because he was the sole custodian and administrator of the parish funds.
The only limitation placed on his spending was the Canon Law admonition that he perform his duties with the “diligence of a good householder” and use the income according to the intention of the donor, making donations out of “Christian charity…within the limits of ordinary administration.”
Brown added that although the transactions may be unusual and questionable, there was credible evidence that Gradilone dispensed the money for what he deemed were “charitable purposes.”
The priest, officials said, did not personally profit from the accounts he set up, nor did he use the funds for any criminal activity.
Frank DeRosa, spokesman for the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese, said an insurance claim was filed last August under the “dishonest employee” policy for over $1.8 million in an effort to recover its losses.
The strange saga of charity spun out of control began last September when, during a routine audit of parish records, church officials uncovered nearly $2 million in unaccounted funds.
Gradilone drew the funds, church officials said, from collections and other accounts belonging to the church, and from “direct solicitations of family, friends, and parishioners.”
Diocese officials knew nothing of Gradilone’s private account, nor did his flock.
Nearly $600,000 of the missing money, the investigation would later find had been transferred to three men—George Schweigert, a convicted burglar and drug abuser from Ozone Park; Robert Velsor, Schweigert’s cousin, who also has a history of minor drug offenses; and Frank Vivona, an ex-con who served time for larceny and assault.
Vivona was the biggest recipient of the pastor’s charity, receiving $400,000 over a five-year span.
Earning Gradilone’s trust, Vivona gave the pastor advice on matters of church business, while performing odd jobs around the rectory.
At one point, the monsignor even co-signed a lease for Vivona’s waterfront home in Babylon, Long Island.
The men, who will all avoid criminal charges, had come to the church over a period of several years, Brown said, claiming to seek financial and emotional support for themselves and their families.
The monsignor happily obliged, handing the men envelopes stuffed with cash. The money was used for, among other things, to pay off gambling debts, cover bail costs and to start up businesses.
In one instance, Brown noted, Gradilone was bamboozled into believing that some of the money he was providing was going for diapers, clothing and to feed one of the individuals’ infant son.
However, the child Gradilone thought he was supporting had in fact been given up for foster care.
Other extravagant gifts purchased for the men with church money included washers, dryers, stoves, microwaves and televisions.
Although the priest committed no crime under church or criminal law, Brown said he did uncover a “troubling pattern of abused discretion, poor judgment and bad decision-making” by Gradilone.
Very little of the money, donated in good faith by parishioners, ever made its way back into the church for maintenance or repairs.
A custodial staff was never hired to maintain the inside of the church and there was virtually no enhancement of the parish’s educational programs.
Known for its sizable donations and active fundraising, parishioners at the church also began to notice the nearly 100-year-old building falling into a state of disrepair.
Brown said at the time of the pastor’s generous donation to the three individuals, the facility he had been entrusted with “required immediate attention.”
The parish’s surplus and emergency fund supply, he added, was essentially depleted by the monsignor’s questionable donations.
Shortly after the investigation commenced, Gradilone was sent to Canada by church officials for psychiatric evaluation.
A former president of the Queens Borough Public Library’s Board of Trustees, Gradilone retired from the parish prior to the investigation, in April of 2000.
He is now staying at St. Margaret Mary Church in Manhattan Beach, where officials said he is not directly involved in church functions.
Monsignor Joseph Funaro has succeeded Gradilone as pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Bishop Thomas Daily, head of the diocese, accepted the decision not to prosecute, and, despite calling Gradilone’s actions “clearly fraudulent under civil law,” said the church has no plans to sue.
Church law supports his contention that Gradilone’s donations “went well beyond the limits of ordinary administration, challenging the boundaries one would associate with a pastor’s wide latitude in being the canonical steward of parish funds.”
“Monsignor Gradilone still has not satisfactorily explained why parish funds were used in such an indiscriminate fashion. I regret that.”
DeRosa said virtually all Catholic church have in place a parish finance committee, whose responsibility it is to oversee that donations and collections are distributed for church purposes.
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, though, failed to have such an oversight committee in place.
DeRosa added that if the $1.8 million is reimbursed, it will be distributed by the parish “to provide services and to maintain the property.”
Parishioners flocking inside the church Tuesday for noon mass were notably elated that the monsignor would avoid a jail sentence.
“He was a marvelous pastor,” said one woman who asked not to be identified. “I was devastated when I heard the news. But now, I’m so pleased, because for so many years, he was such an exemplary priest.”