Monsignor who stole $500,000 for gambling, concert tickets headed to federal prison

The church has forgiven Msgr. William Dombrow for embezzling a half-million dollars meant to fund the care of aging and retired priests.

The federal justice system, however, showed Wednesday that it was not so ready to absolve him.

U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert sentenced the former rector of Villa St. Joseph, a retirement home for priests in Darby Borough, to eight months in prison, citing the need to punish a man who stole thousands to cover his copious gambling debts, buy concert tickets, and pay for expenses on trips abroad.

The judge expressed surprise at what he described as the “no harm, no foul” attitude that many of Dombrow’s supporters – including leaders of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — espoused in relation to his crimes.

“What happened here,” Pappert said, “is that someone with a weakness took great advantage of the generosity of countless people and saw an opportunity to fund a lifestyle – and to a certain extent an addiction – with other people’s money.”

Dombrow, 78, a recovering alcoholic who has devoted his career in the ministry to helping priests and others struggling with addiction issues, painted his crimes in court Wednesday as the result of an unaddressed fixation on gambling.

He lowered his head, and clasped his hands together and pressed them to his lips as his sentence was announced. The punishment, which also included an order to pay the archdiocese $533,258 in restitution, elicited gasps from the crowd of supporters, including several priests and nuns.

Still, it could have been worse. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of about 2½ years.

“What I’ve done, I know, is a serious crime, and I am guilty of that,” Dombrow told Pappert. “All I can do is accept what your decision is today and move on with my life. I truly trust God with all of this.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Rotella scoffed at what she saw as an attempt to portray the monsignor solely as a victim of a gambling addiction. He spent thousands, too, on theater and Philly Pops tickets, fancy dinners, and travel to Florida, Aruba, and Italy.

The lavish lifestyle he pursued, she said, extended well beyond casino doors. And despite his expressions of remorse, Dombrow has made no effort to pay back any of the money he stole.

“He ate whatever he wanted,” Rotella said. “He spent whatever he wanted. He’s going to casinos. He’s taking trips.”

Dombrow pleaded guilty in May to four counts of wire fraud, admitting that for nearly nine years he had siphoned money from the bequests of parishioners and life-insurance payouts from priests who had died at the retirement facility.

His crimes were discovered two years ago, when the bank that administered the account flagged several suspicious transactions at Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack and notified the archdiocese.

Dombrow’s lawyer, Coley O. Reynolds, said Wednesday that archdiocesan officials were not aware of the money that was going into Dombrow’s secret Villa St. Joseph account and that the funds his client stole did not affect the budget set aside to care for the approximately 50 retired priests housed at Villa St. Joseph. As soon as officials confronted the monsignor with his crimes, he agreed to cooperate with their investigation.

Reynolds maintained that much of the money Dombrow diverted into his slush fund was spent to better the lives of retirement facility residents. The concert tickets, he said, were used to treat priests to a night on the town. Other funds went toward building a shrine for deceased priests and to build a closed-in sun porch at the facility.

“He did a number of things for those priests – bringing them flowers, taking them out to dinner,” Reynolds said. “Those Philly Pops tickets? It’s not like he went with a girlfriend. He went with other priests. And no priest [at Villa St. Joseph] went without something because of the monsignor’s spending.”

That argument may explain the forgiving treatment Dombrow has received from the archdiocese since his arrest. Despite stealing from his employer for nearly nine years, he has been allowed to remain at Villa St. Joseph and maintain his title and status as a priest – though his control over financial matters has been cut off, an archdiocesan spokesman said last year.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was among those who wrote supportive letters to the judge on Dombrow’s behalf. He said he continued to pray for the monsignor and cited Dombrow’s decades-long career helping other addicts.

After achieving sobriety three decades ago, Dombrow went on to lead the Archdiocesan Priests’ Committee on Alcoholism and a treatment facility for those seeking religious-based addiction care. He has served as a board member for other centers and ministered on the front lines of the opioid epidemic in Kensington.

Pappert acknowledged that history while imposing his sentence Wednesday.

“We have someone here who has done an awful lot of good for an awful lot of people,” the judge said. “But there is a limited amount of credit [Dombrow] should receive for that. That was his job.”