Westmoreland Co. priest accused in $124K theft case

by: Renatta Signorini, TribLIVE Updated:

SOUTH HUNTINGDON, Pa. —

A Roman Catholic priest on leave from a Diocese of Greensburg church allegedly stole thousands of dollars from parish coffers, according to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday morning.

(This article was written by Renatta Signorini, a staff writer for Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.)

The Rev. Emil Stephen Payer, 69, of Unity is accused of taking about $124,000 from the Church of the Seven Dolors in South Huntingdon during a nearly three-year period while he was in charge of the parish, county detectives said in an affidavit of probable cause.

Payer was arraigned and is free on a signature bond. He turned himself in Tuesday morning.

The diocese announced in April 2011 that the church was being audited after several parishioners raised concerns about several accounts. Payer continued to handle pastoral duties at that point, but duties related to church business were administered by another priest.

Four months later, Payer was placed on leave from the South Huntingdon church and a criminal investigation was launched.

He is facing charges of receiving stolen property, misapplication of entrusted property, four counts of theft by deception and two counts of theft by unlawful taking.

The diocese website indicates that the Rev. Jonathan J. Wisneski is current pastor at Seven Dolors.

Three church accounts were examined in the investigation. Church employees told detectives that church funds quickly disappeared after Payer became pastor in October 2008.

“Once Father Payer came, he began to spend money from the parish accounts at a rapid pace,” detectives wrote in the affidavit. A church secretary “also had a difficult time paying bills because the general account was being depleted.”

Finance council meetings became very short or nonexistent upon Payer's arrival, parishioners told the detectives.

Investigators could not find any documentation for money exiting church accounts, totaling $91,124 between January 2009 and June 2011, according to the affidavit. Police allege that those funds were used for expenses not related to Seven Dolors, such as payment for a credit card held by Payer and checks written out to either Payer or “cash.”