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roman collar amnesia

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 04, 2007

Off The Record has often had occasion to notice the frequency and expedience of memory lapses by senior ecclesiastics faced with awkward questions -- especially under oath (go here, and here, and here, and here ...). Now it seems some persons in greater metropolitan Cleveland are making the same diagnosis in reference to the current diocesan kickback scam trial. From the Plain Dealer:

Some employees at Cathedral Square, headquarters of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, share a whispered acronym for a memory problem that strikes priests who are called to testify in court cases.

"We call it RCA, or Roman Collar Amnesia," employee Janice Hesselton testified during the federal kickback trial of a former diocesan accountant, Anton Zgoznik.

Defense attorneys in the case suspect the RCA affliction has spread all the way to the church's hierarchy. Bishop Anthony Pilla, now retired, and the Rev. John Wright, one of his former top assistants, could not recall significant details of financial transactions and business decisions when questioned at the trial last week in U.S. District Court.

"I've gotten the impression that people's memories are malleable over there" at the diocese, defense attorney Robert Rotatori said after the sixth day of testimony.

Can you remember how much you left in the tip jar at Starbucks over the past year? I didn't think you could. Well, diocesan Financial Secretary Fr. John Wright couldn't remember how much he tipped diocesan CFO Joseph Smith. Happens all the time.

When Smith asked Wright for a $250,000 bonus to supplement his six-figure salary, Wright acquiesced -- and agreed not to tell Pilla.

But on the witness stand, Wright's memory failed him. He couldn't recall the amount on the bonus check, which has never been found. Nor could he remember signing vouchers requesting checks totaling $270,000 for Smith or documents opening a secret account at Fidelity Investments.

Wright confessed his deception to Pilla after a whistleblower produced documents that laid bare what prosecutors said was the Smith-Zgoznik kickback scheme. But Pilla said he wasn't upset about the quarter-million-dollar bonus paid to Smith. The bishop said Wright hadn't even told him the amount of the bonus.

Pilla's powers of recall likewise failed him at convenient moments:

Wright confirmed signing off on a double-dipping deal for Thomas Kelley, chief executive officer of the Catholic Cemeteries Association. Kelley was allowed to retire, collect his pension, and continue working for $88,000 annually. His salary was paid with diocesan checks funneled through Zgoznik's company. Pilla testified he was unaware of the secret deal and thought Kelley had left employment at the diocese. ... Wright said Pilla approved a $60,000 loan to Wright's secretary, Maria "Mitzy" Milos. The loan was not documented on the church's ledgers, Rotatori said. When she failed to repay the loan, Wright paid off the $50,000 balance with a check from the church's Cemeteries Association.

Like the crooked steward in Luke 16 ("to dig I am not strong enough; to beg I am ashamed"), Wright seems to have purchased good will with monies not his own, by giving his employer's debtors a pass: call this The Evangelical Approach. Zgoznik's defense attorney has recourse to a vocabulary of his own:

"Everything [the Diocese] didn't want anyone to see, they ran it through my guy's company," Rotatori said. "He felt very important, like he was one of the big guys at the diocese. He was really just a shmuck with a pen."

Some pen.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Sep. 05, 2007 3:09 PM ET USA

    RCA is not a new phenomenon. Think back afew years to the issue about what does "is" mean successfully used by an ex-president. The "I don't recall" response is equally effecttive. All such responses defy contradiction. There is no proof that one does or not remember.If Bill and Hillary can use it, so can any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Unfortunately, the priests are supposed to know better than to lie under oath. No problem for politicos.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 05, 2007 7:27 AM ET USA

    Eagle's comments are right on...I agree completely. The key is in your Luke 16 quote, "...to beg I am ashamed." There is no shame (or humility) in a large portion of our shepherds, or the people that they surround themselves with, clerical and otherwise. Sounds like this attorney is mounting the "devil made me do it" defense; or could it be the "I just did what I was told" defense.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 04, 2007 6:19 PM ET USA

    The only thing surprising about this story is that there's a surprise. Ordinarys of dioceses have complete authority over their funds, and are unaccountable, either to the Holy See, or to the Faithful. The addage "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" applies to human beings generally, and clerics are not excepted from it. In my opinion, unless the scandals, sexual, monetary, or otherwise, result in organizational accountability, time will only bring more of the same.

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