Thursday, December 8, 2016

Former Priest Guilty of Embezzlement

The former priest at Vancouver, Washington's, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church who stole thousands of dollars from the parish was sentenced Thursday to 40 days in jail and ordered to pay more than $35,000 in restitution.

Armando Sosa Perez, 56, pleaded guilty in September in Clark County Superior Court to three counts of first-degree theft. He stole an estimated $50,000 from the church at 8701 N.E. 119th St. between July 2011 and September 2014, court records show. However, the Archdiocese of Seattle settled on a restitution amount of $35,179.83, the prosecution said.

Deputy Prosecutor Aaron Bartlett said Perez skimmed money from baptismal fees and collection plates, and abused the parish's business debit and credit cards to make substantial personal purchases. The majority of the stolen money came from Hispanic parishioners, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Perez was assigned to the St. John parish in July 2003 but transferred in July 2014 to a parish in Renton, the affidavit states.

After he left, a bookkeeper for St. John raised concerns about Perez's financial practices. The Archdiocese of Seattle commissioned a forensic accountant to conduct the parish's annual audit and discovered the misuse of funds, court records said.

Perez reportedly didn't follow the protocol for collecting and securing offerings, specifically for the Spanish Mass, which is the parish's largest Mass. He used the parish's credit card to pay for meals and a trip to visit his father in California, despite receiving a stipend for meals. The bookkeeper said she suspected he also stole fees or donations for baptisms and weddings, because after he left that revenue significantly increased, according to court documents.

Tiffany Couch of Acuity Forensics estimated a loss of $50,050.13 as a result of debit and credit card misuse, skimming of fees, the loss of a parish vehicle and payments to Perez, court records said. The loss of the vehicle was determined to be a civil matter.

The parish's current priest, The Rev. Tom Belleque, told detectives that since he's lived at the rectory, there have been fliers delivered from casinos addressed to Perez, the affidavit states.

On Thursday, Bartlett argued that Perez should be sentenced to six months in jail, in addition to paying restitution. He based his argument on the length of time Perez stole from the church and his position of trust.

"The parishioners didn't know they were funding his pocketbooks," Bartlett said.

He argued that Perez shouldn't receive special treatment simply because his victims were forgiving and understanding.

"Forgiveness is great, but this isn't just about forgiveness. That's not what the justice systems sets out to do," Bartlett said.

Perez's attorney, Mark Muenster, asked that his client be granted the first-time offender sentencing option, which carries a penalty of zero to 90 days, rather than the standard range of three to nine months. He said he takes "violent disagreement" with the prosecution's argument of special treatment.

Muenster asked that Perez receive no jail time, arguing that incarceration would not be a deterrent for re-offending and would cost Clark County taxpayers about $15,000 for a six-month sentence.

"I apologize. I am sorry for my theft. That's what it was," Perez told the judge. He said it's taken him nearly two years, the length of the case, to realize what he had done. He said the real question isn't whether he stole the money but rather why.

Perez underwent four months of treatment, he said, and lost a lot because of his actions. He said he was told by the archbishop that he will never be a pastor again.

Judge Derek Vanderwood agreed that he thinks Perez makes a good candidate for the first-time offender option but said he didn't think no jail time would be appropriate. He settled on 40 days, a little less than the middle of the range. He denied the defense's request for community service instead.

Perez, who currently lives in Seattle, will surrender to the Clark County Jail on Nov. 17.

Perez became an ordained priest in 2002, and his first pastorship was at St. John. He was placed on administrative leave Dec. 5, 2014, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

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