At Prey in the Fields of the Lord

Robert Riggio has made a career out of conning priests and parishes by phone. If he calls you, hang up.

In the past 20 years, Robert Riggio has ripped off 114 Roman Catholic priests—a total that authorities say may be only a sliver of the real number. He has suckered them out of at least $1.6 million, most of it in small amounts, but a million of it from just one church.

Most of the conned priests never saw their money again, but in at least one case, Riggio robbed Peter to pay Paul—he used money stolen from one priest to repay another.

Incredibly, he did it all over the phone. Practically all of his victims never even met him.

illustration: Luis Diaz

The duped were in parishes all over the country. They fell for Riggio's stories about his daughter needing college money, his mother being evicted, his own life threatened by loan-shark leg-breakers.

Caught several times, Riggio wriggled out of major prison sentences and sinned again and again. The latest investigation shows that he conned at least 60 priests, most from out of state, to wire him more than $200,000 in 150 transactions between March 2004 and September 2006.

As he has often done, Riggio immediately confessed to his latest crime spree, tearfully blaming a gambling addiction, and threw himself at the mercy of the court. That con worked pretty well, too. He was sentenced to prison in 1990 and again in 1998, but that didn't stop him from continuing to work priests and other clergy—and even his own relatives.

Now 62, nailed for the umpteenth time and facing up to seven years in prison, he tells the Voice: 'They'll read your article, and you know what they'll say. They'll say, 'Fuck the guy. Let him rot in jail for the next 50 years.' '

If history holds true to form, just before Riggio is sentenced on April 25 in Manhattan federal court for wire fraud, he'll turn on the waterworks and berate himself in open court for taking advantage of the priests' predisposition to help people. In the last of his brief conversations with the Voice, however, Riggio offered up no tears on that subject. He demanded money to be interviewed at length but was rebuffed. He did say of the priests he conned: 'I didn't know none of those guys. I never met them. It was nothing personal.'

One of the conned priests warns that whatever Riggio gets in this life is inconsequential compared with what's coming. There's one entity, the cleric says, who won't be fooled by Riggio.

'He's going to go to a place that I'm not going to go to,' says the cleric, who was ripped off in a baseball-equipment scam. 'That's a fact. If what I believe is true, he's in big trouble.'

Father James Hannon never considered himself naive until he encountered Robert Riggio.

Hannon can say Mass in seven languages, four of which he also speaks fluently. The 76-year-old intellectual is one of the last of the Catholic Church's '12-year men'—he entered a seminary at age 14 and received a dozen years of classical education. (Today's priests typically receive four years of college, followed by four years in a seminary.)

But Hannon wasn't always ensconced in an ivory tower. No gullible hick from the sticks, he was born and raised in Brooklyn, the stickball-playing kid of a city cop.

In November 2003, Hannon was stationed at St. Anne's in Brentwood, Long Island, when he received a phone call from a man who called himself 'Bill Haggerty.'

'You remember me, don't you?' the caller said in thick Brooklynese. 'After church the other day, we met out in front with my granddaughter.'

Sorry, Hannon said, but he didn't recall that meeting. Haggerty pressed on. He told Hannon that his mother and his wife weren't getting along. He mentioned several times that the two women were both from Puerto Rico—Hannon could relate to that because St. Anne's parish has a sizable Latino population.

Haggerty said he needed a loan to set his mother up in her own apartment. Between the first and last months' rent and a security deposit, Haggerty needed about $2,000. His marriage was riding on the help, he said, and he vowed to quickly repay the money.

Over the years, Hannon would give someone 50 bucks for groceries, $100 to help out on rent, or enough money for a train or bus ticket. Only one other time did Hannon give away the amount of money that Haggerty was requesting. And that was in the old days, when Mass was still recited in Latin by priests whose backs were turned away from the congregation, and when priests could easily dip into church coffers in such situations.

By the time Haggerty called, not only had the language of Hannon's Masses changed from Latin to English to Spanish, but helping a congregant had to first be cleared through church channels.

Hannon didn't do that. After he borrowed $2,000 from church funds to give to Haggerty, two co-pastors discovered that the money was missing and told the old-school priest that, as Hannon recalls, 'we do not do parish outreach.' Hannon repaid the church out of his own pocket from his small salary.

Hannon says he should have known something was amiss when, instead of showing up in person, Haggerty sent a courier service for the money.

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