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.

She contended that the family often went for days without food and didn't repay debts. 'My mother, God rest her soul,' June wrote, 'would send her children to neighbors and grocery store owners, asking them for credit, and she would never pay them when she got her check. My brother Robert was sent out the most, and by this example, of seeing my mother take from others and never pay back, could only lead me to believe that Robert was most affected by this.'

June isn't so compassionate toward her little brother these days. She says that she hasn't spoken to him in more than five years, and that their brother Jay, a retired city cop, 'hasn't had anything to do with him at all' in more than 25 years. 'We grew up poor, but that doesn't matter,' she says. 'You can grow up poor, but when you get older you get an education, you get a job, you do things the right way. He's not an example of our family. We're hard-working people—we worked hard all our life. He never wanted to work.'

The most believable facts about Robert Riggio are laid out in various court-ordered evaluations. One of them termed Riggio an 'average student' who was in the Army from 1967 to 1970, when he was honorably discharged. He started working as a cabbie and as a messenger and got married in 1971. The evaluation noted that Riggio started betting the ponies at Belmont, 'won $150, loved it, and was hooked right away.'

illustration: Luis Diaz

'Stepping on the rug of a casino is like getting a blood transfusion,' Riggio tells the Voice. 'You can't explain it to anyone who doesn't have the problem.'

Others eventually paid for his habits, but Riggio does earn praise from Father Frank Scanlon, who was stationed at St. Brigid's, on Avenue B, from 1982 to 1990. Riggio, he says, offered 'the best-equipped, best-run' baseball leagues on the Lower East Side.

'He somehow got permits for the best fields, used to have punch for the kids and hot dogs, and used to take his teams all over to play,' says Scanlon. 'Believe me, Bob was very generous with the kids.'

Riggio's traveling team played in Philadelphia, Delaware, all over New Jersey, and as far away as Orlando, Florida. Scanlon says Riggio called his league the 'Pepsi Cola Little League' and even had banners made up, so everyone assumed that Pepsi was sponsoring it. It turned out that some of Scanlon's compadres had really been footing the bill for the league, as well as for Riggio's gambling habit.

Riggio eventually admitted conning 52 priests between June 1987 and March 1990.

Posing as 'Jim Martin,' he took a Lisbon, Ohio, priest for $14,000. Riggio persuaded an Idaho priest, Donald Simmons, to wire him more than $20,000. 'At the time,' Simmons later wrote the judge, 'I was so sure I was helping a good, honest person in a time of dire need. . . . Now that justice is about to be served, I would hope that you consider how this man has injured me and others!'

Scanlon says he doesn't want to call his fellow priests 'stupid' for falling for Riggio's ruses, then does just that.

'I thought they were stupid for giving him the money in the first place,' he says. 'Who would give away their retirement to someone they don't even know? So I didn't have much sympathy for them.'

But Scanlon himself got conned, though not out of money. He tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal allowing Riggio to pay back the New York Archdiocese in an effort to reduce his potential jail time. And Scanlon broke ranks at Riggio's November 1990 sentencing on charges of theft by deception to speak on his behalf.

Federal judge Miriam Cedarbaum didn't buy the Lower East Side Robin Hood act. 'You cannot justify to yourself even a little bit that the way in which you used this money somehow excuses what you did,' she told Riggio as she sentenced him to the maximum two years.

'Who's to judge anybody, right?' Scanlon says. 'I thought he had learned his lesson and he was just going to get on with it. But it turned out he's an addict. He's addicted to gambling, and he needs help.'

That's one way of looking at it.

After his release from prison in 1991, Riggio spent a year in Gamblers Anonymous. But by the fall of 1992, he had resumed his trips to the racetracks, OTB parlors, and casinos.

In the fall of '94, Riggio called an upstate youth-baseball coach, a priest against whom he'd coached.

The priest says Riggio's 'out-of-the-blue call' was an offer to invest in a new baseball-equipment company. The first hit was for $500, and Riggio promised big returns. The reverend, who considers himself intelligent and worldly, says that Riggio gradually sucked more and more money from him. Ultimately, Riggio took him for more than $50,000.

'When you give away all that money, you're enticed to give more and more and more,' the upstate priest says. 'He was always saying, 'We'll get it back—you'll get it back, I promise you.' Coming from Brooklyn, I met so many guys like that, it's sad I didn't spot it.'

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