The Rev. Earl Simone, who ministered for more than two decades to parishioners at St. Peter Catholic Church in Huber Heights, on Thursday admitted to stealing $1.92 million from the congregation.
The 75-year-old Simone sat in a wheelchair as a judge convicted him of a first-degree felony count of aggravated theft in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.
“It is unfortunate that someone who had devoted their lifetime to the church and to helping others succumbed to greed and ended up stealing from the very people he ministered to,” said Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr., in a written statement. “However, no one is above the law, and this defendant will be held accountable for his actions.”
A Dayton Daily News investigation last year found Simone had accumulated huge debts from unpaid taxes and court judgments on property he owned — mostly in Huber Heights — and businesses he operated during his years as pastor of the church. The newspaper’s investigation found that between 1994 and 2014 Simone bought $2.8 million worth of property. He had $670,637 in court judgments, settlements and tax liens released after he made payments between 1999 and 2013.
In a deal reached with the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s office, Simone pleaded guilty and agreed to serve a 5-year prison sentence that cannot be reduced for any reason, repay $1.9 million and assist in the prosecution of anyone else involved. The Huber Heights resident gave up his right to appeal except for reasons that cannot be waived, such as ineffective counsel.
Heck said the priest transferred funds from St. Peter church accounts into his own accounts. Simone used the money to pay his personal expenses and used it to maintain and update his rental properties. Simone took the money between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2015.
Assistant County Prosecutor Ward Barrentine said authorities don’t believe anyone else was involved and the provision requiring Simone to cooperate with any future prosecution is a formality.
While the agreement calls for repayment of the money “it appears the money has been spent by the defendant and there are now liens and mortgages on the real estate,” according to Heck’s news release.
The investigation began in February 2015 with a tip about financial irregularities at the church, which unlike many parishes did not have a business manager while Simone was pastor. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which oversees the region’s Catholic churches, soon alerted Huber Heights police and retained a forensic accountant.
Simone took a medial retirement last April. Simone also resigned as administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Adalbert, St. Stephen and Holy Cross churches, all in Old North Dayton.
The forensic accountant worked with an insurance consultant and Archdiocese auditing staff to look at bank records, credit card transactions, vendor invoices and other financial records, according to a news release issued by Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese.
He said that audit is continuing to examine accounts going back 20 years and that the amount of the theft may exceed $1.9 million. The loss to the parish will be limited to its $30,000 insurance deductible and any amount that exceeds the insurance limit of $3 million, according to Andriacco.
“Service to the people of God as a pastor is a sacred trust. Father Simone’s violation of that trust has saddened and deeply disappointed me,” said Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, in a written statement.
“Our staff will do all they can to help the parish move forward under the leadership of the current pastor, Rev. Anthony Cutcher, while continuing to pray for healing in the parish.”
Simone declined comment. His attorney, David P. Williamson, issued a written statement.
“By entering his plea today, Fr. Simone has accepted responsibility for his actions,” Williamson said in the statement. “Today marks the end of an almost year-long process during which we have cooperated with the prosecuting attorney’s investigation.”
He said there would be no further comment as the pre-sentence process is completed and asked “that the confidentiality of that process be respected.”
First-degree aggravated theft can carry a sentence of as much as 11 years.
Langer said under the plea deal no community release is possible for Simone during his five years in prison. Once he serves the five years he will be placed on five additional years of community control. Langer said a pre-sentence investigation will be done and sentencing will be April 22.
Simone is free on his own recognizance until then.
Simone was ordained in Cincinnati in 1977 and served as associate pastor at St. Teresa in Springfield until he joined the U.S. Navy in 1980 and became a chaplain. He returned to the archdiocese and was appointed pastor of St. Peter in August 1992.
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