SOMERSET COUNTY, N.J. - A judge sentenced a longtime pastor of a Catholic church in Somerset County to seven years behind bars for stealing nearly $517,000 in parish funds. But the disgraced priest is still hoping to stay out of state prison.
The Rev. Douglas Haefner, 68, pleaded guilty to second-degree theft in May and was sentenced on Tuesday. He is due to start serving his term on Aug. 19 but has applied for the state's Intensive Supervision Program, which allows felons to serve all or part of their sentences at home.
Until his resignation in 2018, Haefner had been the pastor of St. Matthias Parish in Somerset for 27 years.
Anthony Kearns III, the spokesperson and chancellor of the Diocese of Metuchen, said in a statement released on Tuesday that it was "not an easy day for anyone."
"While we are grateful this matter has come to its conclusion and justice has been served, there are no winners in the outcome of this unfortunate case," Kearns said. "We ask for your continued prayers for the parish community, the entire diocesan community, and for Fr. Haefner, who will serve out his sentence, carrying the heavy burden of his actions with him each day."
In 2016, newly installed Metuchen Bishop James Checchio noted the parish's financial struggles and requested an audit, according to a news release from the Diocese of Metuchen. But Haefner repeatedly asked to delay the audit, saying he needed more time to prepare due to his own health problems.
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"At one point, the effects of his medical conditions led him to be treated in the hospital, where the bishop visited him," the diocese said in a news release. "The diocese accommodated the requests, for a time, and continued to collect and review the parish’s annual financial statements and reports submitted by the parish’s pastor, staff and lay trustees."
When the audit was finally underway in 2018, Haefner admitted taking the funds and resigned, the diocese said. He blamed the theft on unspecified "compulsive behavior" and said he had hoped to repay the money, which by then had come to $516,984.56.
Kearns said the diocese has been implementing tighter financial procedures since Haefner's theft came to light.
The Diocese of Metuchen covers Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, and Warren counties.
With The Associated Press.