Guam archdiocese blames Monsignor Benavente for financial ‘irregularities’

HAGÅTÑA — After Deloitte & Touche, LLC determined the Agana Archdiocese’s finances were not auditable, the archdiocese’s administration took matters into its own hands and completed what the Chancery Office said is an “internal review” of financial affairs.

The archdiocese printed a two-page statement dated Jan. 23 and inserted the statement in this week’s edition of the U Matuna Si Yu’os, the weekly local Catholic newspaper. In the statement, the church administration details five “irregularities” it discovered as a result of its internal review.

The statement released this past weekend lists incidents involving the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica account and the Catholic Cemeteries of Guam account, both of which fall under the rector’s management. Monsignor James Benavente was the only named church official tied to the financial irregularities published this past weekend.

James Benavente

The archdiocese said Benavente “commingled funds without respect of restriction on funds” between the Cathedral-Basilica and the Catholic Cemeteries. The former rector allegedly used cemetery funds to pay for Cathedral payroll and allegedly used money for the clergy to pay church loans.

Further, the church said after Benavente was removed, credit cards issued in the name of the Catholic Cemeteries were found and had balances in excess of $60,000. Benavente is said to have used the cards for restaurants, airfare, the Shangri-La Hotel in Manila and other five star hotels between 2009 and 2014, according to the archdiocese.

“In the same period, the Catholic Cemeteries and the Cathedral-Basilica expended more than $123,000 towards credit card payments to First Hawaiian Bank and American Express,” the church said. “Other payments for a credit card in the name of Msgr Benavente, a gas card and cellular/data phone privileges, which were paid for by the Catholic cemeteries, accounted for an additional $23,000.”

The church also claimed Benavente “gifted” cemetery crypts to a close friend and family. The crypts were valued at $380,000.

The archdiocese said it found that as of July 25, 2014, the Cathedral-Basilica and Catholic Cemeteries accumulated $400,000 in past due obligations, not including a $7 million consolidated loan from the First Hawaiian Bank. Almost half of the past-due obligations, about $180,000, are for insurance premiums for the Cathedral-Basilica.

“The monthly income generated by the Cathedral-Basilica is insufficient to pay for both past due and current insurance premiums, utility and other expense and bank loans,” the church said in its statement. “The current financial condition of the Cathedral-Basilica is in the red.”

Archbishop Anthony Apuron said in a statement last summer said Benavente was removed for financial mismanagement, although financial professionals familiar with the church’s money matters stepped forward to defend Benavente and denied Apuron’s statement.

The church also said Benavente developed projects at the Basilica and with the Catholic Cemeteries which cost over $7 million in consolidated loans and another project worth $2.2 million.

Although the projects themselves were not disclosed, the church said the Cathedral-Basilica and the Catholic Cemeteries “have the largest indebtedness of all other entities in the archdiocese.”

The church said since Benavente’s removal, “much progress has been made” to collect, compile and review finances for both entities and the Perpetual Care Fund was established to help address perpetual care liability issues. The fund has a balance of $30,000, the archdiocese statement said.

The archdiocese plans to post the review in its entirety on its website.

In response to the statement issued over the weekend, Catholic blogger Tim Rohr said he sent an email to Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, secretary for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on Saturday. In his letter, Rohr said he will not contribute to Church collections until Savio answers his questions about costs incurred for Apuron’s travel, meals, credit cards and other bills.

Rohr said Benavente is saddened by Apuron’s “apparent need to go public with his accusations instead of meeting with (Benavente) to discuss these matters personally.”

Benavente still has not received direct correspondence from Apuron about these claims nor has Apuron asked Benavente to explain them, although Benavente continues to have an opportunity to speak with Apuron in a fair and charitable setting, Rohr said.

Benavente is unlikely to respond to media inquiries, Rohr said. “Be advised that Rome has asked him not to respond,” he also said.