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On a hot July morning, the seats in room 208 of the Cook County Circuit Court at 26th and California fill up quickly, long before the lawyers arrive. The small room is lined with wooden benches; a glass wall separates observers from the courtroom, and microphones broadcast the proceedings to them. In many ways, the space resembles the crying room at the back of a church, where parents retreat with babies to avoid disturbing the service. It’s an ironic touch, since many of the observers are parishioners from St. Margaret Mary, a Roman Catholic parish of predominantly Irish American families on the Far North Side of Chicago. The personal-injury lawyer Philip Corboy grew up in the parish, and the Cook County state’s attorney, Richard Devine, is a current member of the church.
The draw today is the sentencing of the Reverend Mark Sorvillo, 55, the former pastor of St. Margaret Mary. In October 2006, the state’s attorney’s office charged him with stealing nearly $200,000 from his parish to support a lavish lifestyle of travel, attendance at Lyric Opera, and shopping at luxury department stores. Although not charged with it, Sorvillo also gave parish money to a married friend who lives in Kentucky but frequently traveled to Chicago to perform as a stripper at gay clubs. Sorvillo’s looting of the church funds so depleted the finances that the parish school was almost closed.
The parishioners caught Sorvillo through both a rebellion against his decision to close the school and a sting operation that proved he was stealing funds. They turned their evidence over to the Archdiocese of Chicago, which in turn presented it to the state’s attorney’s office. “It’s been a long and emotional road,” says Dan McGuire, one of three parishioners who led an internal audit that revealed Sorvillo’s financial extravagances.
When Sorvillo enters the courtroom, he avoids the parishioners’ glances. Relieved of his priestly duties by the archdiocese in February 2006, Sorvillo, tall, balding, and stoop shouldered, still dresses in black clothes. Accompanying him is an attractive 40ish woman dressed in a lavender jacket and wearing a gold cross around her neck. Sitting next to him on a bench, she frequently pats his shoulder.
Stealing more than $100,000 from a place of worship is a Class X felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. But Sorvillo and his lawyer, Brian Collins, have agreed to accept a plea deal for a four-year sentence. Called into the courtroom by Judge Diane Gordon Cannon, Sorvillo is asked how he pleads. “Guilty,” he answers. Dianne Ghaster, an assistant state’s attorney, asks to read the evidence, an idea that Collins fights. His reluctance is easy to understand once Ghaster starts her list of charges: that Sorvillo skimmed more than $40,000 of collection-plate money, stole parish funds to pay for expensive presents from Neiman Marcus and other stores, and tried to pass off the rental of a vacation house and the purchase of fishing equipment as expenditures for church vestments.
“This was an eight-year pattern of continuing deceit and greed,” says Ghaster. “The defendant took full advantage of his parishioners’ understandable reluctance to vigorously question the actions and explanations of their priest. He used the money not to aid the poor or bring comfort to the suffering but to shop at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue; to vacation in Paris, London, and Venice; to dine in expensive restaurants; and to purchase $970 of liquor in one trip to a store.”
When Cannon asks if he has anything to say, Sorvillo answers no. She then sentences him to four years (which means he could serve as little as two, says a source in the state’s attorney’s office). Sorvillo then is instructed to remove his black leather belt and his thin-as-a-wafer gold watch. As he walks away with the bailiff, he never looks at anyone in the observation room. He will be sent to the Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility, in Vienna, Illinois.
“It’s over,” says one of the spectators, and people begin to file out. In the hallway, the woman in lavender, who identifies herself only as “Mark’s cousin,” says, “We’re praying for him.”
“You know, this is only the tip of what he stole,” says McGuire. “We estimate the real number is between $500,000 and $600,000. And it won’t really be over unless some of that money is restored to the parish.” (Discussions with the archdiocese about the restoration of funds are just beginning.) Even then, some parishioners say, their trust in some of the church’s authority figures—both parish priests and the archdiocesan administration that oversees them—is shaken.
In recent years, scandals involving Catholic priests have overwhelmingly dealt with issues of sexual abuse. But the case of Mark Sorvillo and St. Margaret Mary suggests a new area of concern. In 2005, Brian Lisowski pleaded guilty to pilfering about $1 million from St. Bede the Venerable parish on the Southwest Side of the city. The following year, the pastor of Our Lady of the Snows, Robert Wielosinski, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from the parish, also on the Southwest Side. Sources in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office say that it is currently investigating several cases of the possible theft of church funds.
In the past two years, the Chicago archdiocese has added a page to its Web site where people can report suspected financial improprieties. “In the case of St. Margaret Mary’s,” says Bob Milan, first assistant state’s attorney, “the problem was that the archdiocese didn’t take much action to stop what was happening until the parishioners forced the issue.”
“We followed all the outlined procedures,” says Tom Brennan, the director of finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “A number of corrective actions were taken with Father Sorvillo, which included clear definitions of personal versus parish expenses and how they should be separated. He was also advised on proper recordkeeping.”
"We followed the rules, and nothing stopped Sorvillo from stealing the parish’s money,” says Mike Dooley, a member of the parish’s finance committee from 1999 to 2006. “We saw the problem. We complained about the problem. And, finally, when nothing was being done, we devised a sting operation to catch him ourselves.”
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Illustration: Lisel Jane Ashlock