Northboro priest pleads guilty, ordered to pay back money stolen from church
WORCESTER — The Rev. Stephen M. Gemme, the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Northboro, was placed on probation and ordered to make restitution Wednesday after pleading guilty to stealing nearly $240,000 from the church and its school to fuel a gambling addiction.
“Your Honor, I’m deeply ashamed and sorry for the harm I’ve caused,” the 45-year-old Rev. Gemme told Judge Janet Kenton-Walker before pleading guilty in Worcester Superior Court to two counts of larceny of more than $250 by a single scheme.
As recommended by Assistant District Attorney John A. O’Leary and the priest’s lawyer, Carol S. Wheeler, Judge Kenton-Walker placed Rev. Gemme on probation for 5 years. As a condition of probation, Rev. Gemme was ordered to comply with a restitution agreement he entered into with the Diocese of Worcester and its insurer, the Catholic Mutual Group, calling for the immediate repayment of $50,000 and the eventual return of the balance of the nearly $240,000 he stole.
Mr. O’Leary said Rev. Gemme had agreed to pledge real estate and make cash payments to ensure that full restitution would be made. The bulk of the $50,000 paid Wednesday, $35,000, was to go to Catholic Mutual Group and the remaining $15,000 to the diocese.
Three additional counts of larceny of more than $250 by a single scheme were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
The thefts of more than $110,00 from a school account and in excess of $120,000 in parish money occurred over a five-year span beginning in 2008, five years after Rev. Gemme became St. Bernadette’s pastor, according to the prosecutor.
Bishop Robert J. McManus removed Rev. Gemme as pastor in 2013, after being advised by a member of a school advisory board of financial irregularities in one of the school accounts. The bishop said he met with Rev. Gemme the next day, and the priest admitted to a gambling problem.
Bishop McManus said he immediately revoked Rev. Gemme’s authorization to sign checks, and arrangements were made for a medical leave of absence so the priest could seek treatment for his gambling problem. The bishop then referred the matter to the district attorney’s office.
Rev. Gemme told the court Wednesday he underwent treatment at St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Md., from April until November 2013 and continues his after-care by attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings and seeing a therapist. The priest said he remains on medical leave.
Financial records obtained during the investigation showed that Rev. Gemme made cash withdrawals from credit cards in his name and then used church and school funds to pay off the credit cards, according to Mr. O’Leary. He said the priest frequented casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey.
The prosecutor said he agreed to recommend probation in the case largely because diocesan officials did not want to see Rev. Gemme incarcerated.
Several fellow priests and other supporters were present for the plea hearing and Ms. Wheeler presented the court with about 200 letters of support on her client’s behalf.
Ms. Wheeler referred to Rev. Gemme as “a devoted priest” who was highly regarded by parishioners and other members of the clergy. She said his crimes were the product of an addiction to gambling and urged the court to spare him time behind bars.
“Father has been truly remorseful and recognizes his duty to pay back the debt,” she said.
Rev. Gemme had asked the court for “an opportunity to make amends,” which he said was a key part of his recovery.
Other conditions of probation imposed by the judge will require the priest to undergo a mental health evaluation and any related treatment recommended by the Probation Department, to continue with his treatment for compulsive gambling and to speak publicly twice a year about the dangers of gambling. Rev. Gemme was also prohibited from working in any fiduciary capacity while on probation.
Before imposing sentence, Judge Kenton-Walker told Rev. Gemme he violated the trust placed in him by the diocese and the parishioners of St. Bernadette and that his gambling addiction was both a mitigating and aggravating factor in the case.
Other compulsive gamblers have been sentenced to prison for stealing “much less,” according to the judge.
“You’re a very lucky man because of the support that you have,” Judge Kenton-Walker said.