Monday, March 24, 2008

Sins of the Father - Part 2

Man of the cloth

Rodney Lee Rodis, a native of Cagayan de Oro City, was ordained a priest in the Philippines on March 25, 1986. He came to the United States in 1991 to work for the Diocese of Richmond, in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Within three years he was appointed pastor of two small parishes in Louisa County; St. Jude church with 276 families, and Immaculate Conception church, with 114 families. Parishioners say Rodis was personable and that, “ he made the Mass very special, and was especially good with the kids”. He was incardinated into the Diocese of Richmond February 4, 2002.

Citing health problems, Rodis informed church officials of his plans to retire from active ministry at age 50. The priest allegedly suffered a stroke in October 2005, which the cleric claims impaired his memory. Rodis told the congregation he wouldn’t have any income from the diocese and suggested they have a “farewell fund-raiser” for him. The two churches raised approximately $27,000.

(The diocesan Office of Finance stipulates that all retired priests receive a pension of $18,000 per year along with a healthcare premium valued at $7,000 annually.)

Blue and white balloons festooned the hall where Rodis celebrated his 50th birthday on May 21, 2006, in a photograph published by The Catholic Virginian. The article furnished a brief history of the priest’s sixteen years of service to the Richmond Diocese. It also confirmed Rodis had left Virginia June 14th for the Philippines where he was to live at the home of his parents. He later returned to the United States to seek treatment for prostate cancer residing in Fredericksburg.

The big dipper

In November 2006, a donor to the debt reduction collection at Immaculate Conception requested acknowledgment of a $1,000 contribution for tax purposes, but the parish could not find any record of the donation. A copy of the canceled check indicated the funds had been deposited into an account, unknown to the church, at a bank in Fredericksburg. The account was in the name of the parish on which Father Rodis was the only signatory. Bank statements from the previous five years revealed that more checks from parishioners had been deposited in the account and not recorded as parish donations.

Rodis was indicted for one count of felony embezzlement of roughly $600,000 (between 9/01 and 10/06) on January 8, 2007. The bank account that Rodis is alleged to have diverted money to had less than $150 by the time officials discovered it. Additionally, authorities learned that Rodis had been living with 44-year-old Joyce Flores Sillador and three girls estimated to range in age from elementary school to college.

On January 9, Rodis was arrested at his home in Spotsylvania County, situated about 50 miles from where he had preached and celebrated Mass. He denied being married to Sillador but acknowledged that the woman, whom he shared the split-level home with since 1994, was “family” and that she knew he was a priest prior to the indictment. Neighbors said they had no reason to doubt the pair was anything other than a nice couple with three well-behaved daughters. They expressed sympathy and shock and had nothing ill to say of the family. Some had been told that Rodney was in the import-export business. One neighbor said Rodis wanted to run for public office in the Philippines.

At the time of his arrest, Rodis was in the U.S. on a religious worker's visa that was valid until 2015. Rodis surrendered his passport to make bond. The Catholic Diocese of Richmond was unaware that Rodis lived in Spotsylvania County and parishioners never suspected the former pastor lead a double life. As a Catholic priest, Rodis isn't allowed to wed and there were no indications that he married in the U.S. The diocese sought help from the FBI and Secret Service, suspended the retired priest’s faculties, and cut off his pension and health benefits. When the facts became known, a feeling of shock and betrayal settled over the parishioners of both churches the cleric victimized.

Charity begins at home

Rodis at first denied the embezzlement charges. Then he claimed it was his right to disburse funds of the church. Rodis had renovated the house on Watson Lane and later paid off the mortgage balance of $76,000 on May 26, 2006, four days after his retirement. And as the US dollar declined, Rodis gave the Philippine economy a shot in the arm by wiring at least $515,231 of the fraudulently obtained funds to relatives who purchased real estate in his native country. Detectives that searched the Watson Lane home in December found a receipt for one of the wire transfers to the Philippines dated May 24, 2006.

Unlucky number

According to court documents, Joyce Sillador and the three girls relocated to New Mexico in February 2007, "because of the high-profile nature of this case and the hounding they were receiving at the hands of the media.” In the meantime, Rodis was expected to enter a guilty plea at his March 12, 2007 arraignment. That’s when he learned the grand jury certified an additional twelve counts of embezzlement against him. The new charges accused him of stealing church money during 12 separate six-month periods between 9/95 and 9/01. The arraignment was postponed until March 30 when Rodis waived his right to a jury trial and entered a not guilty plea. A trial date was set for October 1. Rodis faced up to 20 years on each count if convicted.

Lead us not into temptation

On April 11, 2007, the daughter of a St. Jude parishioner recognized Rodis at the Richmond airport. The two were on the same Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, which company records confirmed. Defense attorney Jack Maus said Rodis went to New Mexico to visit a family member who had a heart ailment and was sick with the flu. Judge Timothy K. Sanner revoked the $25,000 bond on May 21, 2007 after learning that Rodis violated the conditions of his release by leaving Virginia. Rodis was handcuffed and taken to the Central Virginia Regional Jail on his 51st birthday where he would await trial.

Separation of Church and State

Defense attorney, John Maus, filed a motion in July to dismiss the embezzlement charges against Rodis. The lawyer claimed the priest should not be prosecuted in court if he mishandled money donated to the two parishes. Maus argued that the Catholic Diocese of Richmond should have jurisdiction over the case due to the U.S. Constitution’s clause prohibiting government interference in church matters. A pretrial hearing was scheduled for August 27.

The defense attorney’s creative interpretation of the First Amendment raised more than a few eyebrows, but the theory never played out in court. Unfortunately for Rodis, a federal grand jury indicted him on thirteen charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering on August 21, 2007.

Because of this development, state prosecutors dropped their case against Rodis, allowing the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Northern Virginia to prosecute the priest for the more serious offenses. According to authorities, the case was transferred from Louisa County to the federal courts in part to make it easier to recover the stolen money overseas. John Maus did not defend the federal charges.

Due process

U.S. District Judge Richard Williams signed a restraining order August 24 prohibiting Rodis and any entity holding assets on his behalf from transferring or disposing of the defendant’s money or property up to the amount of $515,231.00 without prior approval of the court. Rodis was also ordered to return to this country any of his assets located outside the United States, including the Republic of the Philippines. If the defendant could demonstrate that the order restrained more of his assets than $515,231, the court would consider modifying the order.

Robert J. Wagner, a federal public defender, was appointed to represent Rodis on August 28. The defendant was denied bond on the new federal charges August 31. The priest’s arraignment was set for September 6, 2007. Rodis pleaded not guilty at the hearing and waived his right to a jury trial. A Bench Trial was set to begin the following month, but was canceled a week before schedule since a Plea Agreement Hearing was slated to be heard on October 26.

Rodis pleaded guilty to one count each of mail fraud and money laundering at the hearing. The agreement mandated: "In addition, defendant agrees to forfeit all property involved in the money laundering offenses alleged in the indictment, or a sum of money equal to the amount laundered." Rodis agreed to pay at least $400,000 in restitution to the Catholic Diocese of Virginia, the full amount to be determined by the court at sentencing on February 21, 2008.

Rodis also signed a statement of facts, the first being that he had resided in Fredericksburg with his spouse, Joyce Flores Sillidor-Rodis together with their three biological children. The former pastor admitted that he devised the scheme to steal money from his churches and then took that money and deposited it into a personal bank account. The defendant acknowledged that his conduct was “knowing, willful, in violation of the law, and not by negligence or mistake.”

When mercy seasons justice

In a handwritten letter addressed to “whom it may concern” Joyce Flores Sillador-Rodis asked for mercy on behalf of her spouse who was facing a maximum of twenty years in prison for each count at sentencing. “Rodney is a very good parent to his children. He adores them. The girls miss him and need him so much. We all want to be together as a family again," she wrote in the January 18 letter to the court. The couple entered matrimony two years after Rodis was ordained a priest in the Philippines.

The letter stated that Rodis was not only a dutiful husband and loving father, he was also a devoted son to his parents never failing to provide for them. Moreover, the wife claimed Rodis was a surrogate parent to other family members in the Philippines and that he sponsored their education through college. She wrote: "He is really a very good person that happened to make a bad decision in life. But I know that it is not too late for him to make amends and make right the wrongdoing that he has committed. We are all here to support him and welcome him home with open arms and open hearts. We need him!!!"

Collateral consequences

Prosecutors asked that Rodis be given 51 months in prison. Rodis argued that 33 to 41 months would suffice. But Judge Williams went beyond that. He told Rodis that if a defendant comes before him for sentencing for betraying public trust, "I can promise you you'll get a maximum term."

The public defender asked for leniency citing Rodis’ help in trying to recover the money, his lack of a prior criminal record, and his poor health. Attorney Wagner wrote: "In addition to all of his medical concerns, he has faced the shame, humiliation and public disgrace of having this situation played out in the media for all the world to see."

But Brian Whisler, an assistant U.S. Attorney, said Rodis had been less than helpful recovering the property until the eve of his sentencing. It appeared, Whisler said, that "Rodis hoped to return to the Philippines rather well off after completing his prison term." Rodis surrendered titles for eight properties bought with church funds in the Philippines at the eleventh hour. "Finally, with regard to the understandable level of humiliation and public disgrace which flows from [his crime], the United States would respectfully assert that this presents a regrettable yet typical collateral consequence of [his] actions," prosecutors argued.

The court advised Rodis that his lack of assistance to the government in recovering stolen money was a sign that he should be given a high sentence, because he had made no effort to right his wrongs. Furthermore, the crimes happened over several years, during which he “developed a criminal mentality and kept doing it,” Williams noted. He also suggested that federal prosecutors seek a subsequent sentence reduction if Rodis fully cooperates with authorities and helps recoup the money he stole.

On February 21, 2008, federal judge Richard Williams sentenced Rodney Rodis to 63 months in prison on the charges of mail fraud and money laundering. He also ordered Rodis to pay restitution of $591,484 to the Diocese of Richmond and required that he meet with federal immigration officials for possible deportation after his prison term ends. Rodis received credit for time already served.

Before Williams handed down the sentence, Rodis apologized to his victims, including the Catholic Church, his family and society in general. "I hope that one day I'll be able to rectify my mistakes," he said. Turning directly to a group of parishioners in the courtroom, the defendant said, "I know that what I did is wrong and I know that deep in my heart, it's not good. I'm sorry for that."

The former pastor’s contrition was reminiscent of an email he had sent to some 100 parishioners on January 18, 2007, a week after his arrest:

"I'm sure that at this time you are aware of what has been going on...This is to express my heartfelt apology for the trouble this might caused you. Whatever the Church may decide regarding my case, I will fully accept the consequences. Please include me in your prayers."

(My hunch is the parishioners of St. Jude and Immaculate Conception will be happy to oblige. I’m betting they pray Rodis lives long enough to pay back the debt he owes the church. And when he’s finished making restitution he can fulfill his dream of running for public office in the Philippines.)


The priest who succeeded Rodis in 2006 was skeptical of his predecessor's apologies. "He did this for five years, systematically, and in a very organized way," the Rev. Michael Duffy said. "Restitution is what we're after."

“This guy deserves an Academy Award for the act that he put on for so many years.” -Phil Scoggin, chairman of the parish finance council at Immaculate Conception.

"Rodney laughed in the faces of his parishioners," said St. Jude parishioner Jack Dingee. "Now he turns around and laughs at authorities. He needs to suffer the consequences."

“The reason why Rodney Rodis stole from the Catholic Church was because of greed and because he wanted to support his secret 5-member family. That’s absolutely wrong. Why steal? Why raise a family without telling the Church? Why disobey the vow of celibacy without ending his vocation as a priest? That’s the height of hypocrisy!”
- Efren Dato (Former Filipino Priest)

“Rodis' crimes, deserving of judicial wrath, are despicable in various ways. For example, many of the rural churches' parishioners are working-class--the "salt of the Earth" whom Jesus especially blessed. From such people Rodis stole so that he could one day be an archipelago grandee. What's more, his plundering fuels cynicism about organized religion in general. And Rodis' greed, warns his own betrayed faith, may deflect disillusioned souls from the most important of all human paths.” -Free Lance Star; 2/23/08 Commentary

Rodney Lee Rodis and Philip Anthony Magaldi have one thing in common, they are both calculating opportunists. It’s a fraternal association that attracts members from all walks of life; blue collar, white collar, roman collar, and regrettably agents of the U.S. Department of Justice that collar criminals.

U.S. Must Pay $101.8 Million for Role in False Convictions

Justice Department appeals $100M wrongful conviction judgment

I pray the appeal's court upholds U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner's decision and that Joseph Salvati, Peter Limone, and the families of Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco receive the compensation awarded to them last July.

It's long overdue!