A Catholic priest has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $500,000 from a congregation known for having financial struggles.
The Rev. Douglas J. Haefner, a 68-year-old priest who formerly served as head of St. Matthias Church in Somerset, pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree theft on Wednesday for stealing the funds for his personal use.
Haefner had been criminally charged by the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office and entered his plea before Superior Court Judge Peter J. Tober. His sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 4.
Anthony P. Kearns III, spokesperson and chancellor of the Diocese of Metuchen, said in a statement released Wednesday that the diocese was “grateful that this matter has come to its long-awaited conclusion.”
“This is a sad and disturbing case for all involved, particularly for the people of the parish community who placed their trust and confidence in Fr. Haefner,” Kearns said.
“Now that the Prosecutor’s office has finished its work, the diocese and parish are able to continue working with insurance adjusters to assess restitution.”
An audit by the Prosecutor’s office estimated that Haefner “mishandled” $516,984.56 in church funds, according to a pastoral letter sent Wednesday by Bishop James F. Checchio.
Checchio noted that, since the financial scandal, changes “have now been made in our diocese to further strengthen our financial practices.”
“I had already requested that the diocese move to a more regular auditing cycle of our own parishes by an independent auditor, even before Fr. Doug came to me to disclose his mishandling of funds,” the bishop wrote.
“The diocese also requires greater involvement by the laity in parish spending reviews and the submission of additional annual reports to the diocese … we have also added a new Parish Financial Services Office to assist the 90 parishes in the diocese with their financial practices and compliance.”
In 2018, Haefner resigned as head of St. Matthias Church, officially over health problems, with allegations emerging that he had stolen at least $500,000 from the parish.
Although Checchio recounted a meeting in which Haefner had confessed his financial wrongdoing, Matthew Adams, an attorney representing Haefner, released a statement at the time claiming his client was not guilty.
"It is quite unfortunate that, as he steps out of the public, some have used the opportunity to violate the confidentiality that, as a matter of law, attaches to those health-related issues," said Adams, as reported by NJ Advance Media in 2018.
"With respect to the allegations being leveled against him, Father Doug enjoys the same constitutional presumption of innocence as any other citizen."