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New Hampshire priest gets four years in prison, must repay stolen funds

 | 
Manchester, N.H.

A Catholic priest who was once a top official in the Manchester diocese was sentenced to four years in a state prison Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to three felony charges for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from his diocese, a Catholic hospital and the estate of a dead priest.

Judge Diane Nicolosi of Hillsborough County Superior Court-North sentenced Msgr. Edward J. Arsenault to prison and ordered him to repay the $185,000 he stole and to pay restitution, for a total of about $300,000.

Besides the diocese, the priest stole money from the Catholic Medical Center in Manchester and the estate of a fellow priest, Msgr. John Molan, for which he was executor.

Arsenault is on administrative leave and cannot perform his priestly functions in public. Diocesan officials have begun the process for his laicization by the Vatican.

According to news reports, the priest lost his composure in the courtroom during his sentencing but regained it to offer apologies to the priests and lay Catholics of the diocese.

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"I'm truly and sincerely story for what I did," he said. "I broke the law and violated the trust of others." In a February open letter of apology to the diocese and larger community, the priest said he was prepared to face the consequences of his actions and pay restitution.

The priest held senior positions in the diocese from January 1999 to February 2009 and was the diocese's principal spokesman at the height of the clergy sexual abuse scandal more than a decade ago.

In October 2009, Arsenault was named president and CEO of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a treatment facility for Catholic clergy and religious.

In May 2013, he resigned the post in the wake of an investigation into an alleged inappropriate adult relationship and the uncovering of possible illegal financial dealings in the Manchester diocese.

The investigation, which did not involve St. Luke Institute, showed that he stole money from the diocese between 2005 and 2013 using various methods, including submitting false invoices. He spent money on lavish meals and purchased expensive equipment, including cellphones and computers.

He worked only a portion of the time he was paid for at the medical center, where he had done some consulting, between 2009 and 2010. He stole from the priest's estate between 2010 and 2012.

Prosecutors confirmed that he had a consensual sexual relationship with an adult male, for whom he bought expensive meals, trips and medication, among other things.

"This is indeed a sad day," Manchester Bishop Peter Libasci said in a statement Wednesday. "Foremost on my mind are the more than 275,000 Catholic faithful in our state.

"Every week, parishioners freely give their funds to support the mission of the church to worship, evangelize, and serve the poor and vulnerable. They place their trust and confidence in the church that these contributions will be safeguarded and used for its good works."

By his criminal actions, the bishop said, Arsenault "profoundly betrayed" that trust and confidence.

He said while the priest's sentence "serves justice," including the payment of stolen funds and restitution, the loss of money "is not the full measure of the damage that has been done. Many of the faithful and former co-workers inevitably will be left with a profound sense of betrayal and mistrust. They are very much the victims here."

Libasci asked for prayers for those affected the most by Arsenault's actions, especially his fellow priests and those who worked closely with him. He also asked people to pray for the suspended priest, hoping that by taking responsibility for his crimes and the harm he caused he "will achieve redemption and spiritual peace."

On Wednesday, diocesan officials released files on Arsenault, which included detailed timelines of the investigations by the diocese and the attorney general.

In a separate statement, retired Bishop John McCormack, who headed the Manchester diocese from 1998 to 2011, said: "The revelation of these charges is disheartening to me and many people who know or benefited from the service and ministry of Arsenault these many years.

"For those who have been directly affected by the actions with which he is charged, I pray for them, that they may find peace," he said. "For Msgr. Arsenault, I pray for him too that he will find peace as he seeks to make recompense in a spirit of repentance."

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