SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

When Priests Steal: German Skims From Plate For 40 Years, Doesn’t Spend A Dime

Authorities find a motherlode of coins and bills at the home of a Catholic priest who worried for decades about going broke in his old age. But his own private savings meant that he never had to touch the pilfered donations.

Miltenberg, Germany (frans16611)
Miltenberg, Germany (frans16611)
Katja Auer

WÜRZBURG - A bad case of "existential angst" is being cited as the driving force that led a German priest to squirrel away more than one million euros that he'd taken from his church's collection plates and other donations over the course of 40 years.

One curious aspect of the case is that there was no final damage – material, at least. The money is all still there, and will soon be returned.

The fraud was perpetrated by a now elderly Catholic priest in the Laudenbach parish in Miltenberg, Germany near Frankfurt. For decades, the clergyman moved money around in different banks, didn't book gift donations into parish accounts, and kept the money from some collection plates for himself.

However, the priest did not use the funds to lead a life of luxury, living modestly and even earning a reputation for frugality. A story that people familiar with the case like to tell is that the church organist was expected to return the old envelope on which the priest noted hymn numbers for the Sunday service because there was still some space left for new lists the following weeks.

On Thursday, the Würzburg Regional Court passed down a two-year sentence for embezzlement against the man, now 78. He will not serve jail time, although he will be on probation. He must settle a fine of 16,560 euros and, every month for three years, pay 200 euros to a Würzburg counseling hotline. The remaining money -- 906,745 euros -- goes to the church foundation in Laudenbach. Ultimately, the priest is expected to refund all the money to the foundation, which will add up to over a million euros.

A local church spokesperson said that it was "an important step that the priest had recognized that it was his responsibility to make reparation."

A kind of compulsion

The exact reason for the embezzlement is not clear. The priest's lawyer read a statement saying that his client suffered from "existential anxiety" that he would be left penniless in older age, but the defendant himself offered no explanation. "He had a kind of compulsion, needing to feel that he was financially safe at all times," said the lawyer. One of the things the priest did with the money was to buy an annuity insurance policy. The lawyer added that his compulsion stemmed back to a difficult childhood during the war. After an apprenticeship as a tailor, the priest earned a high school degree and then studied theology. He had been the Laudenbach parish priest from 1969 until his recent retirement.

Shortly before retirement, the priest contacted tax authorities who very quickly suspected embezzlement. Police searched his home and found 133,071 euros in coins and small bills. "It was enough to fill a box too heavy to carry," an officer told the court. It took four tax officials the entire afternoon to count the money, he added. Police also found a coin collection and a large number of bank accounts in the name of the church foundation that no one at the diocese knew about. Time and again payments were made out of these accounts to the defendant's pension fund or "for private needs." The defendant invested the money prudently, earning regular interest.

In the view of the prosecution, however, the priest's actions had led to "a large loss of assets' for the parish, which knew nothing of the money and therefore couldn't invest it. Furthermore, the abuse was systematic. And finally the priest was guilty of abusing the trust of those in his pastoral care. The prosecutor had asked for a jail sentence of three years and three months, without probation.

But it turned out the priest had already taken care of his own financial needs so effectively that he never actually used any of the embezzled funds: he had saved more than half a million euros of his own money. Now, however, the 78-year-old is ill, living in a residence for the elderly, and it doesn't look as if he will be able to go back to Laudenbach to live as he had originally planned. "He wouldn't dare," said one woman from the parish who had come to Würzburg to attend the trial. That the parish would at least be seeing the money returned was something, she said, but members of the Laudenbach parish were deeply disappointed by their priest. "It certainly doesn't do anything for the reputation of the Catholic Church," the woman said. "Not exactly the best these days."

Read the original article in German

photo - frans16611

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ