Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2017

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J. Patrick Coolican:

So many questions linger after priest who stole to gamble is sent to prison

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J. Patrick Coolican

My heart went out to the parishioners of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton outside a federal courtroom Friday. They were there to support Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison for stealing $650,000 from church funds to feed a gambling addiction.

They were anguished. Connie Calarco had major brain surgery in 2010.

“He prayed for me. He got me through everything. Anytime you needed Monsignor, he was there for us, even when he was going through his own hell,” she said.

Another parishioner said in his seven decades of Catholicism, during which he interacted with 100 priests or more, he’d never met one as special as McAuliffe. He built a parish from near nothing to more than 8,500 families with a church, school and chapel.

According to his own expert witness, Dr. Timothy Fong, McAuliffe suffers from pathological gambling, major depression and social anxiety disorders.

And yet I also feel for those who feel betrayed. Leaders who abandon and lie to their flock deserve especially harsh justice.

Judge James Mahan cited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

“You abused a position of trust,” Mahan said.

McAuliffe brought shame on a church he claimed to love. And think of the good $650,000 could have done.

The case is a darkened spiritual and moral maze. It forces us to confront the most important questions about sin and forgiveness, justice and mercy, biological determinism and free will. I can find no way out.

Surely he needs to be held responsible for his actions, and he should pay the same price as the thousands of more common thieves in our valley. But he’s been serving people for decades, and he almost certainly suffered from untreated psychiatric conditions for years.

I can understand the prison term, though he’ll likely get no treatment there, and I think he could do as much or more good on the outside in the service of others and the community.

Should he experience the suffering that comes with the loss of liberty in prison? Yes. But hasn’t he already suffered from intense scrutiny, shame and loss of ecclesiastical duties?

If we say that addicts lose control of their behavior, how do we hold them responsible for their behavior?

Complex questions, and I have no answers.

Here’s what I do know, however: Pathological gambling and gambling addiction are real, and they are biological. I found the atmosphere in the courtroom hostile to accepted science.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Brown cross-examined Fong, a psychiatrist who is co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and estimates he has worked with 1,000 compulsive gamblers.

Brown pointed out that McAuliffe didn’t go into personal debt; didn’t tap a $30,000 investment account; stole $50,000 that was used for things other than gambling; did not seek help even though he personally sent other priests to special Catholic addiction centers; and, once caught, managed to quit gambling immediately.

The picture she painted was that McAuliffe wasn’t really a gambling addict — a “hollow excuse,” she called it — and that Fong’s diagnosis of depression and social anxiety disorder were hastily and carelessly made. Instead, Brown suggested McAuliffe was a criminal who stole because he could get away with it and enjoyed the “lifestyle” it afforded him.

Perhaps she’s right. I have no way of knowing. In addition to Fong, Dr. Robert Hunter of the Problem Gambling Center, where McAuliffe is in treatment, also believes McAuliffe is an addict.

But put that aside. Brown was merely doing her job, and she did it well.

I was surprised, however, by Mahan’s attitude toward addiction science. Mahan said he was hoping to see an “objective test or objective manifestation of gambling addiction. I didn’t see anything objective,” he said.

As with most mental illness, there is no “objective test,” no blood or urine test. At least not yet.

But the peer-reviewed science is clear: The mind of a compulsive gambler is different, flooded with the pleasure-regulating chemical dopamine when in front of a video poker terminal. Their brains are different; you could even say damaged.

“Just because you can’t see it, taste it, feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Fong said in an interview after the sentencing.

It’s there. Especially in Nevada, where roughly 100,000 people suffer from pathological or problem gambling.

Will we use this awful story to fix our attention on those 100,000 souls, to reach them and get them help?

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