Diocese: Santa Rosa priest found with bags of stolen cash totaling $95,000 after car crash

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A car crash that sent a Santa Rosa priest to the hospital last month has exposed what his superiors now believe may be a career-long habit of taking money from the church and its parishioners, betraying the trust of the faithful and bringing renewed scandal to a beleaguered institution still recovering from the taint of decades of clergy abuse.

Father Oscar Diaz, who has since been suspended from his ministry at Resurrection Church, had more than $18,000 in cash in his car divided between a half-dozen church collection bags when he plowed into slowed highway traffic the afternoon of June 19 and was badly injured, Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa said.

Church officials recovered about $77,000 more from Diaz’s parish office and his home, including more than a dozen security bags used for church offerings from various parishes he served previously and a stack of mostly $100 bills totaling $10,083 in an envelope in his desk, according to the Santa Rosa Diocese of the Catholic Church.

Additional evidence suggests Diaz, 56, allegedly took checks made out to different parishes and deposited them into personal accounts, and used other means to misappropriate funds — mostly so he could send money back to family and friends in Mexico, the bishop said.

When confronted by church officials about his conduct, Vasa said, Diaz confessed in late June to a long history of pocketing church collections.

Police have not arrested Diaz or accused him of committing a crime. The Press Democrat could not reach Diaz for comment Monday or independently confirm the allegations made by Vasa.

Diaz, a man the bishop described as a close confidante, one highly regarded by his brethren, did not offer any explanation for his alleged behavior, Vasa said.

“I can only imagine that it has to be some kind of a severe sickness,” the bishop said. “Who in his right mind steals a collection and keeps those bags as evidence of the theft, for years? It makes no sense.”

Vasa said the church may never know how extensive the alleged thefts were. Diaz, he alleged, “absolutely” took advantage of all five parishes where he has served as pastor since 2004, and likely before that, when he would have been an assistant.

“I’m not sure how long it will take me to sort through all of this, but I anticipate it will take four to six months before I have a clearer idea of what the numbers will be,” Vasa said.

He called the situation “a very deeply felt betrayal.”

Diaz, who fractured a hip and required a surgery in the wake of the car crash, is recuperating at a private home, Vasa said.

He is not in custody and is not under threat of immediate arrest, the diocese said.

After an initial investigation, Santa Rosa police determined the accounting protocols for collections at the church were so lax that there was insufficient evidence to support criminal prosecution, Vasa said.

Detectives opened an investigation immediately after the car crash and concluded they needed additional information and accounting from the church to proceed, Santa Rosa police said in a statement Monday.

Information released to the media on Monday included new, unspecified details that warranted additional investigation, police said.

Vasa said Diaz’s accident occurred on Highway 101 near River Road, when he came up too fast on slowed traffic late on a Wednesday afternoon.

Emergency medical responders preparing to take him to a hospital asked him if he needed anything from his car, and Diaz alerted them to bags containing his “salary” in cash, that were then transported with him, Vasa said.

The security bags were labeled “Resurrection Parish,” dated and marked “first” or “second” collection,” Vasa said. Someone in the emergency room was uneasy enough about the amount of cash inside that he or she phoned the police.

When police called the bishop, he asked them to take custody of the money and pursue a criminal investigation.

On June 24, Vasa was reviewing accounting procedures at Resurrection when he learned that Diaz called the parish to report that he had left some collection bags in his office that needed to be processed and deposited.

Staff members who checked reported having found 10 to 12 sealed and unsealed bags from various dates in 2019, as well as the $100 bills.

Fearing the worst, Vasa then went with Monsignor Daniel Whelton to the rectory where Diaz lived to see what else they might find, and discovered more security bags filled with cash.

The dated bags, Vasa alleged, “show systematic theft at Resurrection Parish from September 2018 through June 2019.”

That’s pretty much the entirety of the time that Diaz, a native of Mexico and one of 15 brothers and sisters, served at the church on Stony Point Road, where he arrived last August after spending just more than 2½ years at St. Mary of the Angels in Ukiah.

Prior to that, Diaz served 2½ years at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Lakeport and about a year at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Clearlake.

Earlier he served at St. Joseph Church in Cotati from 2004 to 2012, the bishop said.

Vasa said Diaz was ordained in Santa Rosa in 1994, though it was not clear where he served before 2004.

But “given the strong pattern by 2004, I find it very difficult to believe that (taking money) didn’t start earlier,” the bishop said.

In a four-page memo prepared for priests in the sprawling diocese last week, Vasa described the internal grief and anger he has experienced as he wrestled with Diaz’s alleged conduct, as well as the decision about how much to make public, ultimately deciding that Diaz must be held accountable through public disclosure.

Pastors in all five churches where Diaz has recently served read a brief statement from the pulpit at Sunday masses.

But Vasa said he remains conflicted about whether he would favor criminal prosecution, if enough evidence is gathered to support any charges.

He said he would “advocate for mercy” if individual parishes should considering pursuing criminal charges against Diaz.

“It’s just a horrible situation that I never anticipated or expected to encounter,” Vasa said, “and yet, here it is.”

Diaz has been placed on administrative leave. “Unfortunately, given the length of time over which theft occurred, the variety of methods and the total dollars involved, I cannot envision any possible future ministry,” Vasa wrote in a letter to priests.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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