MANCHESTER — Catholic clerics were surprised — but not shocked — to learn Monday that the diocese's former top-ranking priest agreed to plead guilty to charges of stealing from the diocese, Catholic Medical Center and the estate of a fellow priest.
"The whole thing is tragic," one diocesan priest said of the Rev. Monsignor Edward J. Arsenault III. The priest spoke on condition his name not be published.
"There was money taken from Catholic Medical Center and from the estate of Monsignor (John) Molan ... His life is ruined," the priest added.
The priest said he didn't think the charges would affect other Catholic clerics in the Diocese of Manchester, which includes all of New Hampshire.
"I think most people will not think worse of their own parish priest," he said.
Arsenault intends to plead guilty to the three counts of theft and serve at least four years in state prison under a negotiated plea deal that will be recommended to the court. The court does not have to accept the recommendation.
"I congratulate Fr. Arsenault for pleading guilty, and am pleased justice is served in this matter," Carolyn Disco of Merrimack said in a statement.
A member of the Voice of the Faithful lay group, Disco added: "We certainly had contentious relations with Fr. Arsenault over the (clergy) sexual abuse crisis, particularly his handling of state audits of the diocese's abuse policy. This is no doubt a difficult time for him, but I hope the future holds promise for his ministry."
Catholics were stunned when they first learned last May that Arsenault was the target of a criminal investigation.
"I'm glad things are coming to light. We are not wondering anymore," the Rev. C. Peter Dumont said.
"Trust has been undermined," he said.
Arsenault sent a letter by email to priests of the diocese and former colleagues in diocesan ministry in which he "accepted responsibility for my failings" and said he is "prepared to make my amends."
Arsenault not only concelebrated the funeral Mass for the late Rev. Monsignor John E. Molan in June 2010, but he also gave the eulogy. He now admits to stealing more than $1,500 from Molan's estate.
"One of the thing I learned when I was a police officer was that anyone can be capable of anything. All it takes is a minute of saying no to God's grace. We are all human beings," said the Rev. Thomas Steinmetz, a retired Manchester police lieutenant who is pastor of Our Lady of Cedars Parish, an Eastern Catholic church in Manchester.
"Nevertheless, we can't help but feel disappointed with our leadership, whether it's a priest or a politician," Steinmetz added.