LAS VEGAS – Muffled sobs erupted Friday in a courtroom packed with supporters of a Roman Catholic priest who was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison and ordered to repay $650,000 he acknowledged embezzling from his northwest Las Vegas parish to support his gambling habit.
Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe, 59, stood straight and offered no reaction as U.S. District Judge James Mahan credited him for accepting responsibility for looting parish votive candle, prayer and gift shop funds for eight years, but faulted him for "hedging his bet" by blaming it on a gambling addiction.
"You abused a position of trust, Mr. McAuliffe," the judge said. He dispensed with any church title for the priest who hid a weakness for casinos and video poker from parishioners who know him as Father Kevin. "You betrayed people who depended on you."
McAuliffe offered a remorseful apology, saying he felt "guilt, shame and self-loathing," and noting that he had "rightly" lost his positions of authority in the church. He asked the judge for leniency so he could make restitution, help others with gambling addictions "and atone for what I have done."
Defense attorney Margaret Stanish asked the judge for probation so McAuliffe could continue getting counseling for his gambling addiction, keep practicing as a priest and pay restitution to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Summerlin. He won't get treatment in federal prison, Stanish said.
"Is it all about retribution?" she asked the judge. "This court has the ability to fashion a punishment that takes into account not only the offense but the individual. He would not be here but for a gambling addiction."
Stanish brought in Dr. Timothy Fong, a psychiatry professor and chief of the gambling studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles, to testify that McAuliffe's gambling compulsion amounted to "self-medication" by a man masking feelings of stress, depression, sadness, social anxiety and inadequacy.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Brown characterized McAuliffe as an opportunist and thief who didn't exhaust his own savings before taking church cash to fund gambling, cars and travel. She accused him of grasping at gambling addiction as "a hollow excuse offered now, when he's desperate for leniency from the court."
The prosecutor derided Fong's diagnosis as unsupported by a single 2 1/2 hour interview with McAuliffe, several telephone calls with his defense attorney and a review of self-assessments that McAuliffe provided in sessions with other counselors at a gambling addiction clinic in Las Vegas. Treatment only began after FBI agents questioned him last May about missing church funds, she said.
And Brown pointed to counseling reports that she said suggested McAuliffe was focused more during therapy on his legal predicament than on getting help for a gambling addiction.
"He did do good," she said. "But he also stood before his congregation preaching about sin, lies, theft and greed ... all the while deceiving them."
The judge referred to a parish rift over McAuliffe's crime when he said he received approximately 100 letters of support through the priest's defense attorney. Mahan also made part of the court record a stack of letters parishioners sent straight to the court saying McAuliffe should be punished.
"I expect the church to forgive him, and the parishioners by and large to forgive him," Mahan said from the bench. "That's different than the justice system."
McAuliffe pleaded guilty in October, before an indictment or criminal complaint was filed, to three counts of federal mail fraud for falsifying documents sent in 2008, 2009 and 2010 to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in San Francisco. Each count carried a possible sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Mahan handed down a 37-month sentence — midway between the 33-month minimum and 41-month maximum recommended by federal probation officials — along with the restitution order. The judge also sentenced McAuliffe to three years of supervised release following prison and banned him from gambling. McAuliffe was ordered to begin serving his sentence April 13.
Outside court, longtime parishioner Regina Hauck, 80, called the judge fair but the sentence unfair. She said she wanted forgiveness.
"I know him. He's a wonderful priest," Hauck said of McAuliffe. "But I think he's a sick man, and everyone makes a mistake."
McAuliffe had already been removed as pastor of the northwest Las Vegas congregation of more than 8,000 families and relieved of diocese duties.
Bishop Joseph Pepe, head of the regional church administration since 2001, issued a statement Friday saying he was "saddened that the actions of Monsignor McAuliffe have caused hurt to so many people" and saying he was praying for the congregation.
McAuliffe had complete control from 2002 to 2010 of church activities and finances at one of the largest Roman Catholic congregations in Nevada, and was able to hide his embezzlement because he was a signatory to financial statements to the Las Vegas diocese and San Francisco archdiocese, Brown said in presentencing documents.
When confronted by the FBI last May, McAuliffe spent two hours offering various explanations how his earnings supported his gambling, the prosecutor wrote.
"When these explanations failed, agents asked the defendant if he stole money from the church, which the defendant denied."
Stanish told the judge in court documents that McAuliffe began paying restitution to the church in May and has paid $13,420 so far.