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Chris Bieri and Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald , Published May 03 2012

Former East Grand Forks priest charged with stealing ring

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - A former associate pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church here has been charged with stealing a wedding ring left on a kitchen sink by a parishioner.

But the Rev. Carlos Felipe Velez Rivera, 45, has not been charged in connection with other allegations made by the Catholic Diocese of Crookston that he misappropriated donations and started a special missions collection without authorization while at Sacred Heart.

In Minnesota district court in Crookston on April 16, Carlos Velez — the name he went by at Sacred Heart — pleaded not guilty to two felony theft charges. The charges, filed April 3, each carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

According to the criminal complaint, on Feb. 3, East Grand Forks police met with Monsignor David Baumgartner, vicar general for the diocese, and the Rev. Larry Delaney, pastor of Sacred Heart, who said a missing wedding ring had been found in Velez’s living quarters in the parish rectory.

They said on Nov. 26, Rachel Bridgeford took her wedding ring off to wash dishes at the church. Delaney said he saw the ring the next day but left it there, anticipating someone would claim it.

On Jan. 12, church officials started an investigation into Velez’s suspicious behavior regarding money coming into the church, according to the affidavit.

Velez’s was asking for money for some kind of mission work in Africa, but he did not handle or process the funds according to diocesan policy, Baumgartner told the Grnad Forks Herald.

When one of the donors from Sacred Heart came to the diocese asking for a record — for tax purposes — of her gift to Velez, they learned the woman’s check to Rivera had been deposited in the priest’s personal account, Baumgartner said.

On Jan. 28, church officials found the parishioner’s missing ring inside a clock in a cupboard in Velez’s residence.

Velez told police he found the ring near a stairwell and put it in his pocket, later dropping it into the clock.

Velez said he didn’t tell Delaney about the ring he found because it was found on the stairs, not near the sink, where the parishioner had left her ring.

Velez also told police that he didn’t know the value of the ring and forgot about it after putting it in the clock.

On Feb. 3, church officials turned over the results of their investigation to East Grand Forks police.

Bridgeford told police she wanted to press charges against Velez for stealing the ring, which she said is worth $1,900.

On Feb. 4, diocesan officials placed Velez on administrative leave “pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations of theft of personal property, misappropriation of donations solicited by him for Africa, initiating a special collection without permission and failure to follow internal controls regarding the proper treatment of donations to the parish,” according to a news release from the bishop’s office.

But East Grand Forks Det. Rod Hajicek said Velez won’t be charged in connection with the allegations over the African special collection, only for his alleged theft of “personal property,” the ring.

Nobody knows the total amount of money Velez collected for the purported African mission and Velez claimed he sent all collections on to the cause, Baumgartner said.

“It’s possible that Father Carlos gave the money to where he said he did, but he doesn’t have authority to take a collection like that,” Baumgartner told the Herald.

The diocese rescinded its invitation to Velez to work in Sacred Heart or anywhere else in the Crookston diocese, Baumgartner said.

Velez remains a priest under the authority of the Boise, Idaho diocese, where he came on a visiting assignment in October 2010, first in Bemidji, then to East Grand Forks in summer 2011. Baumgartner said the Boise bishop was informed of the allegations against Velez.

The former Sacred Heart pastor is living in an apartment in Grand Forks and has no permission to work as a priest anywhere, Baumgartner said.

Attempts to reach Velez through his attorney Joel Arnason were unsuccessful.