- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

YUKON, Pa. (AP) - A western Pennsylvania priest stole $124,000 from the parish he used to head to pay off credit cards and organize overseas trips, including junkets to Rome and Israel for Catholics, district attorney’s detectives have charged.

The Rev. Emil Payer, 69, surrendered Tuesday and immediately waived his right to a hearing on theft charges filed by Westmoreland County detectives.

Payer is charged with stealing the money while he pastored Church of the Seven Dolors in Yukon, a tiny village in South Huntingdon Township. His defense attorney, Thomas Merrick, declined to comment on the case.

Greensburg Bishop Lawrence Brandt has placed Payer on administrative leave. To avoid similar problems, the bishop in July 2012 issued new financial procedures to parishes in the diocese which serves more than 160,000 Roman Catholics in Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties, diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.

Payer stole the money from October 2008 through August 2011, the dates he served as pastor, while he simultaneously drew a $2,600 monthly salary, investigators said.

Church employees told investigators the priest spent money freely immediately after he was named pastor. The parish was “financially stable” and had $65,000 to $70,000 in a general operating account, but that was down to $1,500 or so a year later, the detectives found.

“Once Father Payer came, he began to spend money from the parish accounts at a rapid pace,” detectives said in a criminal complaint. A church secretary “also had a difficult time paying bills because the general account was being depleted.”

Church officials told the detectives that parish finance council meetings stopped occurring, or were very brief. When parishioners confronted the priest about $45,000 that was gone from one account, the priest told them, “I bought a lot of things including light bulbs and batteries,” the detectives wrote.

Payer used bulk mailings to advertise the religious trips he organized, which helped drive the parish’s annual postage from about $700 up to about $30,000. Payer distributed that literature outside the parish to attract people who wanted to take the trips, the detectives found.

The priest filed for personal bankruptcy in April 2012, according to online court records, listing credit card debts of more than $38,000 against assets of roughly $45,000.

Payer remains free on bond.

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