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Church Tries to Forget Priest Charged With Stealing From Collection Plate

February 26, 1994

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) _ A passer-by was the first to spot cash in the Rev. David Dean Piroli’s car. He called police, thinking the money might have been looted during the Los Angeles riots just a few weeks earlier.

It turned out to be the beginning of a tortuous and tawdry trail of alleged embezzlement, drugs and gay prostitution.

The 37-year-old priest known fondly as ″Father David″ is on trial on two counts of grand theft, accused of skimming more than $60,000 from two churches to feed a cocaine habit and pay for a male prostitute.

The trial, which began in early January, is expected to go to the jury next month.

″I try not to think about it,″ said Cathy Polino, a member of St. Peter Claver Church, where Piroli worked when he was arrested in May 1992. ″We just want our money back.″

Acting on the passer-by’s tip, police searched Piroli’s church-owned car and found it filled with collection envelopes, cocaine and $10,000 in cash. The bills were stuck under the floor mat, in a paper bag and in a shoebox.

Days later, St. Peter Claver employees searched Piroli’s office and bedroom and found more cash, nearly $50,000 worth, hidden in closets and drawers. Small bills were stacked 3 inches high in Piroli’s underwear drawer; about 17,000 $1 bills were rolled, crumpled or folded into paper airplanes.

It took eight hours to count the stash. The church workers also discovered gay pornography and a switchblade.

Days after he was arrested and freed on bail, Piroli disappeared. He said he went to Mexico; he was arrested eight weeks later, entering the country at the Mexican border with two illegal immigrants in the trunk of his car. No new charges were filed against him.

In all, prosecutors said Piroli stole $61,306 from St. Peter Claver and his earlier posting, Sacred Heart Church in neighboring Saticoy.

Piroli said he never saw the money and didn’t use cocaine. Drug charges against him were dropped because the amounts of cocaine that police found were small.

His lawyer claims that Piroli’s superior, the Rev. Jim McKeon, stole the money to support a secret gay lifestyle and planted it in Piroli’s room to frame him.

McKeon, who now works at St. Jude the Apostle church in nearby Westlake Village, called the charges ridiculous.

″It’s just one of those things,″ he said. ″He had to come up with something.″

Yet 1 1/2 months into the trial, Piroli’s case was still unclear. His lawyer, Richard Beada, never made an opening statement and a gag order prevents him or Piroli from talking to reporters.

Accountant Daniel McCarthy testified for the prosecution that Piroli had multiple bank accounts - as many as nine at one point. The money they contained swelled from $16,500 in 1986 to $54,700 when he was arrested in 1992, McCarthy said.

Piroli said the money came from his salary and parishioners’ gifts. But McCarthy said Piroli made only $350 a month in salary and maybe $250 more each month from gifts.

The parishioners at St. Peter Claver, a 2,000-member Roman Catholic congregation in this Los Angeles bedroom community, are trying to forget the sordid affair.

The Rev. Dennis Mongrain, the church’s new pastor, said he prays for Piroli but prefers looking forward. Proudly surveying a new lawn and a freshly painted building, he said church finances were ″dramatically up″ since he replaced Piroli.

″There have been some wounds created by the whole event, but I think we’re in a healthy process of healing,″ he said.

Parishioners still remember Father David fondly, calling him a good priest who gave good sermons. They are puzzled by his alleged unholy endeavors.

″Everybody understands the guy is human. There are good and bad guys in every field,″ Joe Tilhot said. ″I think the guy was a little off. But he was a real good priest.″

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