Archdiocese officials knew priest was 'milking' people for money, clergyman says

By Mark Mueller | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 09, 2015

The Rev. Alex Orozco, seen here in his formal ordination photo, is under investigation for allegedly accepting more than $250,000 from elderly parishioners at St. Rose of Lima Church in Short Hills.

 

The Archdiocese of Newark knew three years ago that one of its priests was "milking" an elderly parishioner for tens of thousands of dollars but took no action, allowing him to collect even more money from others for his personal use, a whistleblower clergyman contends.

The Rev. Alex Orozco, 37, allegedly accepted more than $250,000 in cash and goods from parishioners of St. Rose of Lima Church in Short Hills between the fall of 2012 and October 2014, when he transferred to a new post in Bergen County.

That largesse — including checks made out to cash, credit card payments, car purchases and at least $25,000 for a vacation home Orozco acknowledges he never bought — is the subject of an investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, NJ Advance Media reported last week.

Since then, one of Orozco's fellow clergymen said he personally reported Orozco's behavior to the archdiocese late in 2012, speaking first to the director of priest personnel and then to the vicar general, the second-in-command to Archbishop John J. Myers. The priest said he doesn't know if either alerted Myers.

The revelation raises questions about whether church officials missed an opportunity to rein in Orozco before he allegedly accepted money from other parishioners, who say he lied to them and fed them financial sob stories, taking advantage of their generosity and wealth.

"It bothered me so much when I was informed he was taking this money," said the priest, the pastor of a different church at the time. "I was furious. 

"That is not what we're about," he continued. "Here's this guy coming from nowhere milking a woman for all these funds. I don't want him getting away with it."

It is exceedingly rare for priests to speak out on sensitive internal church matters without the permission of the archbishop.

The priest in this case spoke to NJ Advance Media on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to be inundated by calls from other clergymen throughout the archdiocese.

He said he is not worried the archbishop will know his identity. Based on his complaint, he said, church officials almost certainly know.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Archbishop Myers, declined to comment on the priest's contention.

Orozco, now an assistant pastor at the Church of the Nativity in Midland Park, did not respond to requests for comment. In a previous interview, he admitted accepting large amounts of money and other items, including a big-screen TV and furniture.

He said he did not ask for the gifts in most cases, though he acknowledged asking two women to help him buy houses, one in the Poconos and one in his native Colombia. Though he received at least $25,000 toward a Pocono home, Orozco said, he did not complete a purchase.

"I couldn't (buy the house), so what I did was try to help other people," he said. "So basically I gave it away to people. I did. I helped many people in Colombia. Unfortunately, that happened."

The priest who alerted the archdiocese said he first learned of the gifts in 2012 through a caretaker for Patricia Brady, an elderly St. Rose parishioner he had known for decades. Brady, who once worked as a clerk at Millburn Town Hall, died in October 2013 at age 84.

The whistleblower said he knew little about Orozco, who had been ordained just months earlier, in May 2012. But he said he was immediately concerned by Orozco's willingness to accept money, particularly from a retiree on a fixed income.

"He groomed her, as I see it," the priest said. "I was just beside myself."

Within days, he said, he drove to the archdiocese's headquarters in Newark and spoke to the Rev. Joseph Petrillo, then director of priest personnel, and told him the story. A day later, he said, he had a phone conversation with Msgr. John Doran, then vicar general.

In both discussions, he said, he made clear he believed Orozco's behavior was out of line, bordering on predatory.

To the priest's knowledge, nothing came of the complaint, he said. Orozco remained in active ministry at St. Rose, where he continued to accept or solicit money, according to parishioners.

One woman, a widow, told NJ Advance Media she gave Orozco more than $125,000 in 2013 and 2014. She said she has since learned of others who gave smaller amounts.

In a statement released Thursday, a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a charity group, said it paid $5,300 on behalf of Orozco to help him with immigration issues

Checks were made out to a law firm, the Department of Homeland Security and Orozco, the statement said.

Doran could not be located for comment. In May 2013, he was removed from the vicar general's post amid a scandal over the Rev. Michael Fugee, a priest who was criminally charged and defrocked for repeatedly violating an agreement barring him from contact with minors.

Petrillo, the director of priest personnel, died in December 2013.

That the archdiocese did not stop Orozco from accepting money proved troubling to Charles Zech, an expert on parish finances and director of the Center for Church Management at the Villanova School of Business.

"This is so wrong on the part of the priest, but also on the part of the archdiocese. It boggles my mind in this day and age, when we're so sensitive to priest misconduct," Zech said, referring to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. "For any red flag the archdiocese has on priest misbehavior, it's got to be acted on immediately. If they haven't gotten that message, they haven't been paying attention the past 15 years."

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