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.

But that priest had an advantage that most of Riggio's other victims didn't: He knew who'd taken his money. After he filed a criminal complaint, Riggio eventually repaid him everything plus interest—a total of $65,450—in an attempt to avoid jail. Riggio would later claim that he won that money gambling. Prosecutors said a chunk of it, if not all, came from a con man's dream: an elderly New Jersey priest named Frederick Valentino, who was in the midst of a parish fundraising drive and had delusions of grandeur.

The community center next to St. Bonaventure's Roman Catholic Church in Lavallette, a town of about 4,000 on the Jersey shore, has all the charm of a Days Inn. Functional, yes. Grand in the traditional style of the church, not exactly.

Robert Riggio is to blame for the nearly $500,000 in debt that St. Bonnie's is still paying down a decade after the building was supposed to be erected practically debt-free. The building itself is merely a scaled-down version of what Valentino originally planned.

illustration: Luis Diaz

Desperate for money to repay the upstate priest, Riggio started his fingers walking through a thick red book called the Official Catholic Directory, which lists all the churches in the country, until he connected with St. Bonaventure's Valentino.

Using the name 'Timothy Ryan'—coincidentally the name of the church's biggest donor, who owns a chain of funeral homes—Riggio pitched one of his favorite hard-luck stories: He needed $20,000 to repay a gambling debt or else the loan sharks were coming after him. It's still unclear whether the priest thought this Timothy Ryan was the same as the funeral-home owner, but in any event he bit.

Riggio's next move was to disguise his voice and call the priest, identifying himself as a banker friend of Ryan's named 'Tom Barracus.' In a clever piece of truth-telling, Riggio (posing as the banker) told the priest that 'Ryan' didn't have the money to pay him back and never would. But, Barracus said, he could cut the priest in on a lucrative offshore oil investment. Valentino, then 74, began dreaming of building not only the community center but also a school, as well as passing on some of the money to parishes that were having a hard time keeping afloat.

'The priest was elderly and was just misled in many ways and was led right down the path,' says Robert Leaman, a state prosecutor who handled the case. 'Father Valentino was trying to do good. He thought he was turning the money to a higher advantage. It just didn't turn out that way.'

Riggio occasionally sent the priest paperwork purporting to show that the investment was making the church bundles. As the promised investment return climbed to $20 million, Valentino gave Riggio an astounding $1,314,450 in church funds in just over a year. All of it was delivered via courier; the priest never met either 'Ryan' or 'Barracus.'

The scam wasn't uncovered until December 1997, when a bank clerk became suspicious that Valentino, who was attempting to withdraw $30,000, was being extorted. The clerk contacted the diocese, which conducted an audit, which uncovered the missing money. Detectives eventually tracked Riggio through the couriers who had been delivering the money directly to him at his Grand Street apartment.

Valentino was placed on 'medical leave,' as church officials called it. 'We're still trying to recover,' says Leonard Troiano, the priest who replaced him. 'My God, that left us with a $1.3 million debt. He almost put us out of business. It left us with just barely enough to keep operating.'

Troiano recalls the 'overwhelming' shock of the 1,200 or so parishioners when he told them during a day of Masses about the swindle. He says he told the flock, 'Most of us have lived through a world war or a depression. We made it through that; we'll get through this.' All he could offer them was a 'peace prayer.'

Having worked on the business side of New Jersey's largest paper, the Star-Ledger, before joining the priesthood, Troiano was specifically brought in to restore financial stability and bring reform to the church. In fact, he says, the state's dioceses subsequently put in place 'Riggio rules'—safeguards like requiring financial-oversight committees at all the churches.

Much to the dismay of St. Bonaventure's faithful, Riggio—who turned out to be a model prisoner and coached the prison basketball team—served only a third of his nine-year maximum prison sentence. He was paroled in May of 2001.

Then he went back to his chosen profession. By the same time Suffolk County detectives were closing in on him for scamming Father Hannon, the FBI had received a complaint from a Kentucky reverend who had lent $25,600 to a man calling himself 'William Kelley,' whose mother was supposedly being evicted from her Manhattan apartment. The FBI used an agent to pose as the reverend's niece, and she made the next delivery in person. Riggio was busted yet again. And again Riggio confessed, pled guilty, and tearfully asked for mercy.

One of his lawyers insists that Riggio's contrition isn't an act. But Riggio's sister doesn't buy it.

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