The Rev. Michael Jude Fay, former longtime pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church, admitted yesterday in federal court to taking possibly more than $1 million of parishioners' contributions for his personal use. Appearing before U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton in New Haven, Fay, 56, pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He will also be required to pay the money back to St. John Parish.

In May 2006, it was discovered that Fay had been using church money to support his lavish lifestyle, which included trips to Europe, the Caribbean and other parts of the United States. An private investigation - prompted by another church priest and its bookkeeper - also discovered that Fay was in a romantic relationship with a Philadelphia event planner, Cliff Fantini. Fay resigned shortly after the news broke.

An August 2006 independent audit commissioned by the Diocese of Bridgeport, reported that St. John Parish lost at least $1.4 million since 2000. Fay became church pastor in 1991.

On Wednesday in New Haven, Fay looked much different from the Father Jude that ran St. John for so many years. His hair was cut short and light-colored. Wearing a black suit with black tie and white shirt, Fay waved his right to a trial and when asked if he wanted to plead guilty, he said, "Yes, your honor."

When Judge Arterton asked Fay what he did, he said: "I used church funds for means other than the needs of the parish or the parishioners."

When asked if he obtained the money by stealing or by fraud, he said: "By fraud."

When asked if the money was transferred though interstate commerce, he said: "Yes, your honor. Through credit cards and bank accounts."

When asked if he realized the money he was using was stolen, he said yes.

Richard J. Schechter, who prosecuted the case, told the court that between 1991 and 2006, Fay solicited contributions for the church while assuring parishioners that the money would be used for the parish.

In 1999, Schechter said, Fay opened a bank account under the name Bridget Funds. Between 1999 and 2000, Fay deposited $230,000 into that account which he used for his personal use and to pay off credit cards.

Between 2000 and 2006, Schechter said, Fay opened another account at a Darien bank under the name Don Bosco. He deposited $750,000 into this account, which he spent for personal use.

Schechter also said that Fay transferred an undisclosed amount of parish money into his own bank account.

Fay also admitted that, in March 2006, he instructed a parish employee to transfer $34,000 from a parish bank account in Connecticut to his personal bank account at a Wachovia Bank in Florida. The $34,000 represented funds that were needed to pay parish expenses, including salaries of employees, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Immediately after the $34,000 was transferred to Fay's personal account at Wachovia Bank, Fay admitted that he caused these funds to be transferred in interstate commerce to a company in Pennsylvania. The $34,000 represented part of a $39,558 down payment for the purchase by Fay of a Philadelphia condo.

"A religious leader who secretly uses contributions made to a church for his own personal benefit destroys the confidence and trust of everyone who donates money to a religious institution or charity," Kevin J. O'Connor, U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, said. "Prosecutions of this kind of serious criminal conduct should serve as a message that no one is above the law."

After the prosecutor laid out the details, Fay looked puzzled and asked to speak with attorney. After stepping away from the courtroom lectern to speak with attorney, Fay said he did not dispute that he took the money but said he was unsure of the specifics as they were presented.

Fay was released on a $50,000 bond and required to surrender his passport immediately. His travel, the judge said, is restricted to Connecticut and Florida. He was told he cannot go to New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania without giving notice to his probation officer. He will also be required to report to probation officers in Connecticut and Florida.

Fay's attorney, Lawrence Hopkins, asked if his client had to give notice to travel to New York, where he is receiving cancer treatment, and to go to New Jersey to visit his mother. Judge Arterton said he could go, but not without giving advanced notice.

The government's final audit of the fraud will determine the length of Fay's sentence. If he stole between $400,000 and $1 million, he would face 37 to 46 months. If the final number is between $1 million and $2.5 million, he would face 46 to 57 months.

Judge Arterton scheduled sentencing for Dec. 4 in New Haven.

With the guilty plea, Fay waved his right to appeal - unless he is sentenced to more than 57 months.

After the announcement, the Bridgeport diocese released a statement thanking the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for its "comprehensive investigation and efforts to bring this unfortunate issue to conclusion. We pray that today's announcement will help the St. John Parish community put a sad chapter of its history behind it and finalize the healing process that has been so ably overseen by its pastor, Father Frank McGrath."

In June 2006, McGrath joined St. John's as the new pastor.

"With Father Fay's plea of guilty on the charges of interstate transportation of funds he obtained by fraud, the diocese has affirmed that he remains unauthorized to function as a priest, as has been the case for more than a year," the diocese statement said.

When asked for his reaction, Father McGrath e-mailed this statement to The Darien Times:

"The parishioners and clergy of St. John Parish welcome a just resolution, while at the same time, we are praying for all concerned.

"Although many have been deeply hurt by the events at issue, the parish family continues to grow through its many new ministries and exciting movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Many parishioners comment that in recent months the parish has come together in greater love and unity, shown more care to the needy, and has grown in its spiritual well-being. As we look to the future, our focus will be to continue the healing process and spiritual growth.

"We entrust the judicial matters in the hands of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the federal courts," McGrath wrote.

Susan Byrne, a parish council member at St. John, told The Darien Times she was relieved something was happening. Speaking before Fay appeared in court about the expected guilty plea, she said: "A lot of people have been hurt by this and a lot of people have come together because of this ... We've worked very hard to bring St. John back together again."

While Byrne said that a lot of positives have come out of the scandal, she noted that someone who was deeply hurt was the Rev. Michael Madden. He is the one who first alerted the diocese of Fay's actions and eventually hired the private investigator, who discovered the fraud and other improprieties.

"We still really miss him," Byrne said of Madden.

Attempts to reach Madden for comment were unsuccessful.

"The diocese, through its counsel, Day Pitney LLP, continues to pursue restitution efforts in an attempt to secure any of Father Fay's assets that can be used to reimburse the parish for its losses. To date, the parish has received restitution in the form of cash, real estate, and personal property with an approximate value of a few hundred thousand dollars." the diocese statement said.

"In closing, we want to assure every parishioner throughout the diocese that they deserve, and can expect, nothing less than total financial accountability and transparency for their precious donations that fund the many good works of the Church." editor@darientimes.com