The thefts weren’t just a one-time crime.
Instead, they followed a long-term pattern of a Catholic nun’s systematic stealing from two churches and their parishioners.
Those crimes included taking money from the weekly collection basket, depositing checks made out to the church into her personal bank account and carrying on a campaign of dishonesty for five full years – all to feed her gambling addiction – authorities said Monday.
That’s why Sister Mary Anne Rapp, a 68-year-old Catholic nun from Lewiston, is going to jail after having pleaded guilty to stealing almost $130,000 from two churches.
Orleans County Judge James P. Punch on Monday sentenced Rapp to 90 days in jail, five years’ probation, 100 hours of community service and $128,000 in restitution payments.
“She’s unquestionably done a lot of good things for a lot of people and causes for many years,” Orleans County District Attorney Joseph V. Cardone said. “But you can’t ignore the extent of the dishonesty.”
That’s why Cardone concluded that it was an “appropriate sentence.”
“I’d hoped that she would not be sentenced to any term of incarceration,” defense attorney James P. Harrington countered. “But she knew this might happen, and she was prepared for any sentence.”
Rapp went to Orleans County Jail immediately after the late-morning sentencing. She’s expected to serve 60 days of that sentence, meaning she could be out in early September.
A veteran of prison ministry, Rapp plans to continue that role in jail, working with female prisoners, especially those with their own addiction problems.
“She knows she can do some good when she’s in the Orleans County Jail,” Harrington said.
The nun spoke briefly in court, admitting that what she did was wrong and apologizing for any embarrassment to the parishioners and her order, the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, courtroom observers said.
Rapp could have faced up to six months in jail after having pleaded guilty to grand larceny. She admitted stealing the money from two rural Catholic churches, in the Town of Kendall and the Village of Holley, between March 2006 and April 2011.
So the 90-day sentence was a midpoint between no jail time and the six-month maximum.
“I think jail was appropriate,” Cardone, the district attorney, said, referring to the long-term systematic thefts.
Harrington, the defense attorney, had a different view of her personal punishment.
“I don’t think sending her to jail was necessary to do that,” he said. “She is the type of person who’s punishing herself internally all the time. She stole money from her friends and from people who counted on her. She knows that.”
But Harrington, referring to the jail sentence, quickly added, “I understand why the judge did it.”
Investigators have that said she stole the money to feed a gambling addiction carried out in Western New York casinos. Sources have said that she spent much of that money in the state-operated casino at the Batavia Downs harness-racing track.
Cardone cited all the times that defense attorneys come in and explain that their clients have a heroin or cocaine addiction or a gambling problem.
“It’s not an excuse that you have an addiction,” the district attorney said.
Harrington pointed to the “remarkable ability” that Rapp has shown in battling her addiction.
She spent 9½ months in a treatment facility for gambling addicts and has continued her recovery through counseling and support groups.
“She’s an addict, she’ll be in recovery for the rest of her life, and she knows she’ll have to struggle with that for the rest of her life,” Harrington said. “She knows that she needs the support of people who have gone through this to make sure she doesn’t go back.”
The veteran Buffalo defense attorney, who has represented plenty of addicts in his lengthy career, then talked about the gambling addiction.
“I look at the casinos as the crack cocaine of regular people,” he said of those who can’t curtail their gambling. “They get to the point where they can’t control it, like any other addiction.”
Hearing that a nun was going to jail because of thefts triggered by a gambling addiction didn’t shock Mary McConnell, Ph.D., a certified gambling treatment counselor with Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County.
“This is not a surprise to me,” she said. “We have had priests and other clergy. It’s like any other addiction. It can happen to anybody.”
Like any other addiction, a gambling habit probably starts with just going out to have some fun.
“It’s not illegal,” McConnell said. “It’s like a minivacation, if you have a lot of stress or everyday problems. It’s sort of like a mini-Disneyland.”
But in some cases, the adrenaline rush of winning turns into an addiction. Then, the addicted gambler starts thinking that maybe one big win can erase any mounting debt.
“Gamblers live on ‘maybe,’ ” McConnell added. “And ‘maybe’ makes their blood run.”
Sister Edith Wyss, provincial minister for the 133 members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, based at Stella Niagara in Lewiston, issued a statement saying, “We feel great empathy for the two church communities affected by her actions. Sister Mary Anne is a member of our community, and we will continue to help and support her.”