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Police investigating alleged $100,000 scam at St. Mary’s in Waddington

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WADDINGTON — The former priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church collected what could be more than $100,000 from his parishioners and gave the cash to help someone he was wrongly led to believe was in dire financial straits because of a sick child.

Monsignor Robert L. Lawler was duped into giving the money to a person whose name has not been made public, said church officials.

“Our understanding is Monsignor Lawler was the victim of a scam that went on for a period of time,” said the Rev. Kevin J. O’Brien, moderator of the curia for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. “He thought he was assisting someone, but the reason for need appears to have been false.”

Father O’Brien would not say how many people donated or how much money was involved, and said the diocese is cooperating with state police investigators, who would not comment on the case.

“It is my understanding she was hard up and had a child that was really sick,” said Edwin E. Sharlow, who was one of the parishioners who donated to the bogus cause.

St. Lawrence County Undersheriff Scott F. Bonno said his office learned of the hoax several months ago.

After a conversation with one of the donors in late winter of last year, Mr. Bonno said he advised members of the church of the possible scam.

“I spoke with members of the parish there, their board, to let them know there was possibly something going on,” he said. “Some of them had given (Fr. Lawler) money, too.”

No one pressed charges and so he said his involvement in the case went no further.

“Without a complaint, where do you go?” he said. “You can’t build a court case without witnesses and signed statements.”

Mr. Bonno said the investigation started after family members of one of the people who gave money to Monsignor Lawler contacted state police.

He said he was unsure how many people donated or how much money was involved.

“I’ve heard numbers, and they’re six-figure numbers,” he said about the amount of donations given to the priest.

The undersheriff and Mr. Sharlow both said they thought the priest was a victim in the scam.

“Obviously, he did this because, in his mind, he was concerned about their well-being and trying to help another member of the community,” Mr. Bonno said.

Mr. Sharlow, who would not say how much money he gave to Monsignor Lawler, worries more about the priest he helped than about the money he lost.

“He’s been the best person in the world his whole life, and then he tries to help someone and ends up hurting himself,” Mr. Sharlow said. “In his mind and heart, he really believes to this day he was helping them out. He was doing what he thought was right, and I made a donation to him to help whoever he thought needed help. He gave everything he had. They took advantage of him.”

Monsignor Lawler retired July 4 as pastor of St. Mary’s and St. John the Baptist Church in Madrid, where he also served. The diocese’s website lists Monsignor Lawler as a pastor in residence at Notre Dame Church in Ogdensburg. He continues to serve as vicar general and on the diocesan finance council.

Monsignor Lawler was not available for comment, a diocese official said.

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