‘Fr. Doug’ Pleads Guilty To Theft Of $500k From St. Matthias

The Rev. Douglas Haefner, center(File photo).

The Rev. Douglas Haefner, the former pastor at St. Matthias Church on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, pleaded guilty on May 19 to one count of theft, admitting that he stole more than $500,000 in parish funds.

Haefner entered the plea before Superior Court Judge Peter J. Tober, sitting in Somerville. Haefner was released on his own recognizance, and is scheduled to be sentenced on August 4.

The plea brings to an end the more than two-year investigation of the parish’s finances by the diocese and law enforcement, investigations kicked off when Haefner, known as Father Doug to his parishioners, admitted to Metuchen Diocese Bishop James Checchio that he had misappropriated about $500,000 of parish money for his own use.

None of the money Haefner misappropriated was connected with St. Matthias’ school, Checchio said.

Soon after, Haefner resigned from his position at the church, a position he held for about 27 years.

In a May 19 letter to St. Matthias parishioners, Bishop Checchio wrote that a forensic audit conducted by the county prosecutor’s office and an audit done by the diocese concluded that Haefner had misappropriated $516, 984.56.

“The diocese and parish cooperated fully with teh investigation and now that the investigation has concluded, we can continue to work with the insurance adjusters to assess restitution,” Checchio wrote.

“Certainly, these findings will bring about a wide range of emotions and I assure you that it has taken a toll on me, too,” Checchio wrote. “Obviously, I am sad for the parish community, but likewise for Fr. Doug. I had grown very fond of him since my arrival, but love does not allow us to ignore, or worse, cover up challenges that come our way.”

“This is a sad situation for all involved, one that I wish would never have come to pass, but one that we pray will make us even stronger,” he wrote.

Checchio wrote that the incident has prompted the diocese to strengthen its financial oversight practices.

“I had already requested that the diocese move to a more regular auditing cycle of our parishes by an independent auditor, even before Fr. Doug came to me to disclose his mishandling of funds,” he wrote. “The diocese also requires greater involvement by the laity in parish spending reviews and the submission of additional annual reports to the diocese. Since that time, we have also added a new Parish Financial Services Office to assist the 90 parishes in the diocese with their financial practices and compliance.”

“Furthermore, to try to ensure that what happened in your parish can never be repeated here or elsewhere in our diocese, I directed the implementation of an independent, anonymous reporting mechanism for concerns by laity, staff, clergy or others surrounding parish finances,” Checchio wrote. “In addition, Fr. Doug has received help for his personal challenges and tells me that he has benefited from this, too. Resigning as pastor of St. Matthias was an obvious, but difficult result of this tragic situation after serving as your pastor for 27 years and having so many connections with you from his good pastoral ministry.”

“While I am thankful a conclusion has been reached, I also remember, too, the many people who over the years expressed to me their compassion for Fr. Doug, who served as the pastor for so many years,” he wrote. “I ask you to please remember him in your prayers as I do, even as I remember your good parish community in my own prayers.”

Haefner resigned his position at the church in early November 2018. His resignation was announced in a letter to parishioners by Bishop Checchio.

In a press release issued at the time, the diocese explained that although parishes are required to file yearly financial reports, parishes undergo regular audits on an irregular basis; the last time the St. Matthias parish finances were audited was in 2009 and before that, 2005. The parish’s latest audit had begun earlier in 2018.

“At the time the most recent audits were to take place at Saint Matthias, the Diocese accommodated the pastor’s multiple requests to reschedule, due to serious health issues he was experiencing,” the 2018 release said. “The Diocese, however, still collected and reviewed the parish’s Annual Financial Statement and Report submitted by the parish. The Trustees did sign-off on the submissions of the past several years.”

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