Former St. Rita’s priest held on grand theft allegations
Former St. Rita’s Catholic Church Rev. Ignacio Villafan was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of embezzlement.
Tulare police officers, who for about a year had been investigating money mismanagement at the church, made the arrest. Villafan, 49, was booked into the Tulare County Main Jail and his bail was set at $50,000.
Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Fultz said Villafan’s arrest comes just two days after charges were filed in superior court.
The priest is held on two counts grand theft. The counts span a period from June 1, 2005 to June 30, 2009, and July 1, 2009 to Jan. 21, 2012.
In the first allegation, the DA’s office said $65,000 was reported missing.
The counts also carried special allegations making them into felonies and alleging the loss is more than $150,000.
In total, the DA’s office said there is about $400,000 missing.
The investigation into St. Rita’s money handling came after church diocese personnel noticed money missing.
The investigation also looked into how the missing money was used. Fultz said those details will have to wait until after the matter is heard in court.
In a published statement, Catholic Diocese of Fresno administrators said Villafan was removed from his post at St. Rita’s in 2012 after the financial discrepancies were discovered.
Before coming to St. Rita’s Catholic Church, Villafan was assigned to churches in Porterville, Tipton and Cutler.
If sentenced as charged, Villafan faces a seven-year prison term. Fultz said he doubts that will happen. Villafan is expected in court on Friday.
In published statements, Most Reverend Armando X. Ochoa, Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno said those placed in a position to administer community donations must be accountable and good administrators of gifts to accomplish the mission of Christ.
Most Reverend Ochoa said he will offer prayer for those affected in this situation.
Fultz said he was saddened an embezzlement case involving a priest.
St. Rita’s is located at the northeast corner of Bardsley Avenue and O Street. Church members are trying to build a new church on Bardsley, east of Mooney Boulevard. The new location seeks to address the lack of space during mass.
Three church members contacted Wednesday said they preferred not to comment for this story. One of the parishioners, who’s also on the church’s financial committee, said they had signed a confidentially agreement, which prevents them from making public comment.
St. Rita’s dates backs to the 1940s. The church opened in late 1955. It was elevated to parish in 1968.