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Cops: Priest Gambled Away Donations

August 12, 1998 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A Catholic priest took his secretary to Atlantic City, N.J., gambled away donations from parishioners and spent hundreds of thousands in church money on a vacation home, cars, guns and antiques over 26 years, police said Tuesday.

The Rev. Walter J. Benz and Mary Anne Albaugh will be charged with theft and conspiracy within two weeks, Inspector Daniel Colaizzi said.

Benz, 72, retired and moved to a nursing home as the investigation wrapped up last week. Albaugh, 51, will not immediately be arrested because she is not considered a risk to flee, police said.


Their attorney, Jim Ecker, had no comment beyond, ``I haven’t seen any charges yet.″

Benz’s church, St. Mary of the Assumption, serves nearly 11,000 people in Glenshaw, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh.

Until last week, Benz lived with Albaugh and her teen-age son in a house packed with antique guns and furniture, gold coins and a 2-foot Buddha statue, Colaizzi said. Police believe that nearly all the items were bought with stolen church offerings.

The total take is believed to be at least $1.5 million from two churches, though Allegheny County police were still totaling the losses and said a third church may have been involved. Investigators wouldn’t identify the third church.

Ripped collection envelopes were found in Albaugh’s house, police said. The pair had traveled together to casinos in Atlantic City several times, once winning $15,000, Colaizzi said.

He would not say if they were romantically involved. ``There is no way I’m going to touch that,″ he said.

Parish council member Kathy Yarzebinski said Benz was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.

Investigators on Monday seized a new Cadillac and new Oldsmobile and were looking Tuesday for a Subaru that Benz and Mrs. Albaugh had purchased.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said Benz brought the investigation upon himself earlier this year by telling superiors there might be financial irregularities at St. Mary. That and questions about the books during Benz’s stay at another church led church officials to call police.

Benz worked at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrison Township from 1972 until 1993, when he was reassigned to St. Mary. A fill-in priest is running the church until a replacement is named next month.

Money also was taken from Blessed Sacrament, police said.