SOMERSET, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – A Catholic priest in New Jersey is gone and under criminal investigation as leaders of his diocese look for how a massive amount of church money went missing.
Parishioners of Saint Matthias Church in Somerset called Father Doug their leader for 27 years.
But now Rev. Douglas Haefner is gone for health reasons, according to the leaders of the Diocese of Metuchen.
At the same time, about $500,000 of church funds is missing, likely taken, or to quote the leaders of the Diocese of Metuchen possibly “borrowed” by Haefner.
“I’m kind of shocked about that,” said North Brunswick resident John Kukla. “That he would actually do something like that to parishioners.”
Most of the churchgoers found out about this in the first of three letters from Bishop James Checchio. One confirmed the priest quit, another announced a replacement, and a third confirmed a wide-ranging internal investigation into the way finances were handled.
“It is with sadness that I must inform you that Father’s resignation coincides with serious questions and concerns that recently have been raised regarding the handling of parish finances,” Checchio wrote to parishioners. “Father came to me about his own health problems and these financial issues in recent weeks and has expressed his sorrow for his actions and for letting us all down.”
“Father Haefner will seek treatment in a committed effort to regain his health, which many of you are aware has been in decline recently,” he added.
Click here to read Bishop Checchio’s letter to parishioners.
“They have to find out where it went, who took it, why they took it and it has to be accountable and given back to the people who donated it,” said Franklin Township resident Beth Conte.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Kukla. “Must’ve had some sort of way to fool everybody.”
“To see what they’re spending their money on might be comforting,” said New Brunswick resident Vanessa Cerasan.
Haefner no longer lives on church property and is said to be getting professional medical help. The Somerset County Prosecutors Office confirmed it has started looking into the case.
Leaders of the Diocese of Metuchen say that because there’s an active investigation, the Bishop will not speak on camera about Father Doug’s actions, or the audit into the church’s finances.
No criminal charges have been filed yet, and attorney Michael Adams, who is representing the priest, tells Carlin Haefner deserves the presumption of innocence, and claims his bosses violated his employee confidentiality.