The pastor of a Niagara Falls church pleaded guilty to two felonies Wednesday for using $44,381 for his own benefit at his former church from 2004 to 2006.
The Rev. Peter Del Rio used church money to buy an engagement ring for the woman who later married him and also to pay off a car loan, Assistant District Attorney Brian E. Seaman said. In court, Del Rio admitted to having his personal van repaired and writing on the memo line of the check, "Church van."
Del Rio, 49, of Wyoming Avenue, Niagara Falls, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree grand larceny and first-degree falsifying business records. Both are felonies with maximum sentences of four years in prison. Niagara County Judge Peter L. Broderick Sr. scheduled sentencing for Dec. 20.
Defense attorney Vincent E. Doyle III said Del Rio is currently pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Niagara Falls. The thefts occurred at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, which closed in 2006.
"Part of the reason they closed was they couldn't raise enough money to keep the parish going," said Seaman, who added that restitution will be paid to the United Methodist Conference of Western New York.
But Doyle said, "Steps toward closing the church had already been taken before the conduct alleged in the indictment began."
He added, "Rev. Del Rio was brought into a parish that was in trouble financially and in terms of membership. He'd been successful in turning other parishes around."
In court, Del Rio, wearing a black suit with a clerical collar, offered a carefully phrased admission when Broderick asked him what he did to commit his crimes.
"I utilized church funds without going through proper channels," he responded.
"As I understand it from the grand jury minutes, that was in contravention of your written agreement with the church," Broderick replied.
Del Rio agreed.
As for the van repairs, Del Rio said, "It was a van I used for the ministry."
The judge commented, "It's a very complicated matter. What expenses were authentic expenses and which weren't are open to dispute."
Doyle responded, "That's one of the reasons the [plea] negotiations were successful. Both sides recognized there were difficulties with the case."