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Audit guidelines tightened in wake of priests arrest

By HOLLY HUFFMAN

Eagle Staff Writer

Allegations that a former priest stole more than $161,000 from his Bryan parish have prompted the Austin Diocese to require regular financial audits of its Catholic churches, officials said.

Meanwhile, some parishioners of Santa Teresa Catholic Church — shaken by the arrest of former priest Victor Robles on a felony theft charge — are working to regain faith and trust.

“It’s hard to still have faith,” said Eddie Rodriguez, a member of Santa Teresa since 1961. “He was a priest, and you think he’s doing a good job for the community and our kids.”

Robles, a pastor at Santa Teresa from 1988 to 2002, was arrested and charged Friday with stealing $161,489.77 from the church’s Jamaica fund, which holds contributions made to the church during weddings, funerals and baptisms. The second-degree felony is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Bryan police investigators say they believe Robles dipped into the church coffers during the last four years of his priesthood, using the money to pay off personal credit card bills, according to a police affidavit.

Robles, who turned himself in after a warrant for his arrest was issued last month, was arraigned and released on $40,000 bond. His attorney, Kyle Davis, could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Austin Diocese spokeswoman Helen Osman said she was not aware of Robles’ surrender until contacted by The Eagle but that she was glad to hear the news.

“It will be good to be able to get some answers to some questions,” she said.

The Robles case has prompted officials at the diocese, which includes Bryan and College Station, to toughen their auditing requirements for churches, Osman said.

Guidelines already in place require a financial audit after a priest leaves a church, Osman said. Now, the diocese is in the process of hiring an internal auditor to perform regular checks of church finances — with the goal of preventing what happened at Santa Teresa.

Not all the details have been worked out, Osman said, and officials have not decided how often the audits will occur.

“It’s very unfortunate. The people at Santa Teresa are hard-working folks who just have a great deal of love for their parish,” she said. “For this to have happened — it’s just a tragedy.”

Robles was forced to resign last year after church members brought unspecified allegations of ethical violations to the Austin Diocese. The charges were found to be true during an internal investigation, Osman said, and Robles was dismissed from the ministry on Oct. 11.

Osman would not discuss the nature of the ethical violations but said they were not related to the church’s finances.

An audit of Santa Teresa’s books initiated after Robles stepped down brought to light the missing money. Church members first learned of the theft when the audit was completed.

Osman said she hopes the church can move forward with the help of new pastor Albert Ruiz. She said Ruiz is the right person to help church members regain their trust.

But not all church members have been able to push aside their feelings of hurt. When contacted by telephone, some — like parishioner Antonio Hernandez — said they would rather not discuss the former priest.

“I have no comment on that,” Hernandez said Friday afternoon. “I love that man and I’m sorry [for] what he did.”

Others simply didn’t return phone calls made by The Eagle.

Rodriguez said he hopes Robles’ arrest will answer exactly how the theft could have happened. Just because someone has access to money doesn’t give them the right to take it, he said.

Despite the recent challenges, the Santa Teresa family has managed to stay together, and most congregants are adjusting to the new priest, Rodriguez said. But the episode has been discouraging — to say the least.

“Discouraging is right,” he said. “I hope they solve this case soon so we can put it behind us.”

Holly Huffman’s e-mail address is hhuffman@theeagle.com

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