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A $25 crack cocaine purchase in January cost a Buffalo priest $10,025 Monday and could send him to federal prison for up to a year.

The Rev. Frank J. Tuchols, 49, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor cocaine possession charge in U.S. District Court.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Father Tuchols is expected to get probation. But Magistrate Judge Carol E. Heckman warned that he could go to jail for up to a year, depending on her evaluation of the case.

Father Tuchols wore clerical garb and a grim expression as he admitted he gave a city drug dealer $25 for three dime ($10) bags of crack on the night of Jan. 19. The dealer, as it turned out, was an informer working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Father Tuchols told Judge Heckman that a friend of his -- without his knowledge -- placed the cocaine order with the dealer, but the priest admitted that he willingly paid the $25 when the dealer arrived with the cocaine.

Father Tuchols has paid the federal government $10,025 to get back his personal car -- a 1992 Acura Vigor -- that was seized by DEA agents that night, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Guerra III said Monday.

The priest declined to comment after the court appearance, but his attorney, John P. Pieri, said he thought the federal government's treatment of Father Tuchols was "unusually harsh."

"In 23 years as a defense attorney in this city, this is the first time I've seen the federal government prosecute someone for one $25 cocaine purchase," Pieri said. "I don't think his position (as a priest) helped him in any way.

"In fact, I think they were more harsh in their prosecution because he is a priest. For a violation that small, paying $10,000 to get your car back is a very substantial penalty."

Guerra, who heads drug prosecutions for U.S. Attorney Patrick H. NeMoyer denied any harsh treatment.

He did say his office was especially concerned about the case because Father Tuchols holds a position of responsibility at Children's Hospital.

"His position at Children's did concern us," Guerra said. "As it turned out, there is no indication that he was involved in any illegal activity at the hospital. But that was a concern when this incident occurred."

Father Tuchols has held a full-time job as director of pastoral care at the hospital since 1983. He took a medical leave from the hospital in late January.

One police official who is familiar with the case said federal prosecutors in Buffalo seldom file criminal charges against drug users, unless there is some indication they also sell or transport drugs. But prosecutors do pursue small drug possession cases against people in community leadership positions -- such as clergy, police officers or government officials, the source said.

"Nobody enjoys going after a priest, a government office holder, or a corporate office holder," NeMoyer said. "We will take a close look at those cases involving people in positions of trust . . . Mr. Pieri represents his client, and I'm sure if his client was innocent, he would not have taken a guilty plea."

Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham, chancellor of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, was in Judge Heckman's court Monday. He said he was there in a "supportive role."

"He's a well-liked and respected priest. His problems came as a surprise to everyone who worked with him," Monsignor Cunningham said.

Father Tuchols has not been suspended from performing Masses or other priestly duties, but his status with Children's Hospital is unsettled at this time, said Monsignor Cunningham, a top aide to Bishop Edward D. Head.

According to Pieri, Father Tuchols has had a drinking problem for some time, and he began "experimenting" with cocaine several months ago.

The priest returned to Buffalo last week after spending a month in an out-of-state substance abuse treatment program, and is continuing to receive counseling.

Judge Heckman ordered Father Tuchols to submit to periodic drug testing. His sentencing is scheduled for June 14.

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