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Cops: Priest Gambled Away Donations

August 12, 1998

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A recently retired Catholic priest lived the high life _ gambling and buying fancy cars and handguns _ by skimming at least $1.5 million over 26 years from donations to two churches, authorities say.

The Rev. Walter J. Benz and Mary Anne Albaugh, parish secretary at his last church, will be charged with theft and conspiracy within two weeks, Allegheny County Police Inspector Daniel Colaizzi said Tuesday.

Until last week, Benz lived with Albaugh and her teen-age son in a house packed with antique guns and furniture, gold coins and a 2-foot Buddha statue, Colaizzi said. Police believe that nearly all the items were bought with stolen church offerings.

Church money was spent on items including luxury sedans, statuettes and 27 fancy handguns, while some was gambled away in Atlantic City, N.J., police said.

Investigators are still totaling the losses and say a third church may have been involved.

Benz’s most recent church, St. Mary Church of the Assumption in Glenshaw, is $600,000 in debt to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, with interest piling up, said Kathy Yarzebinski, a member of the parish council.

The 154-year-old parish, one of the fastest-growing churches in the diocese, serves about 11,000 people in the affluent Pittsburgh suburbs of Allison Park, Glenshaw and Hampton Township.

``I don’t know if this put us into debt, but is certainly has affected our ability to pay it off,″ Ms. Yarzebinski said Tuesday. ``My hope is that whoever comes in here next will be strong enough to heal the church. There are a lot of scars from this. When you work in the church, there’s a certain level of trust involved.″

Benz, 72, has had leukemia for two years and is being treated for a viral infection, Ms. Yarzebinski said. He resigned last week and is living at a Catholic nursing home. Ms. Albaugh, 51, will not immediately be arrested because she is not considered a risk to flee, police said.

Their attorney, Jim Ecker, hadn’t seen the charges and had no comment.

Ripped collection envelopes were found in Albaugh’s house, police said. The pair had traveled together to casinos in Atlantic City several times, once winning $15,000, Colaizzi said.

He would not say whether they had a romance. ``There is no way I’m going to touch that,″ he said.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said Benz brought the investigation upon himself earlier this year by telling superiors there might be financial irregularities at St. Mary. That and questions about the books during Benz’s stay at another church led diocese officials to order an audit and then call police.

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