Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Radical Priest Looks Back on Prison

January 7, 2003

LIMERICK-born priest Fr. Pat Moloney was in the head-lines in the 1990s, convicted of possessing stolen Brink's money. He recently met with DYLAN FOLEY to discuss his time in prison, and his thoughts on Ireland.

IN the mid-1990s, graffiti appeared all over the Lower East Side of Manhattan, saying "Free Father Pat" emblazoned over an anarchist symbol.

During that period, Fr. Pat Moloney, a Limerick-born street priest, was locked up in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, convicted of possessing money stolen in a Brink's robbery, sick from rancid food and banned from working as a priest. Fr. Moloney lived like a monk on bread and water, running a covert ministry with a ceramic chalice, serving wine made out of fermented raisins and counseling fellow prisoners.

Four years out of prison and back on the Lower East Side working with troubled youths, Fr. Moloney recently told the Irish Voice he is still enraged over what he calls his unjust imprisonment. "The `F-B-Lie' had me convicted on flimsy, circumstantial evidence," he said. "They needed a scapegoat."

In January 1993, a Brink's armored car was robbed in Rochester, New York, and $7.4 million was stolen. Ten months after the robbery, the FBI arrested Fr. Moloney when $2 million was found in an apartment he held in Stuyvesant
Town. Fr. Moloney was convicted of conspiracy to possess federally insured money.

The intense priest held a four-hour sit-down with the Irish Voice in front of Lazarus House, his youth residence on East Ninth Street in Manhattan. The only break was when the 70-year-old Moloney took 20 minutes to say Mass for a group of lay Catholics who support the home. Moloney told stories ofhis brutal prison experiences, his efforts to rebuild Lazarus House and his views of the Northern Irish peace process.

MOLONEY'S federal conviction in 1995 started his trip into prison hell. For several months he was bounced between prisons across the country, from Minnesota to New York.

"They put me on the `circuit therapy,' where they keep you on the road for weeks," said Fr. Moloney. "They sneak you out and try to lose you in the system."

Fr. Moloney finally arrived at a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, where the diminutive priest was thrown in with stone-cold killers and mobsters. Fr. Moloney, however, was given respect by his fellow prisoners.

"The Mafia guys believed I was framed," he said. "They had followed the case."

There was also a mystique following Fr. Moloney. There was still at least $5 million of missing Brink's money out in the world.

The prison experiences were surreal and horrifying. "One day, the guards brought in a prisoner who had 10 bodies on him," said Fr. Moloney, using prison slang for a killer who had committed 10 murders. "He walked right up to me and embraced me." From then on, Fr. Moloney was a protected man.

"I was thrown from the Age of Reason to the Dark Ages," said Fr. Moloney. "To the state, the prisoner is a piece of garbage."

Fr. Moloney led an ascetic life. "For me, it was a catacombs-like existence. I lived a life of prayer in the mountains."

He had succeeded in smuggling into prison his missal and Jesus beads, the knotted prayer beads he wears to this day. He took confession from Catholicprisoners, and counseled Muslims and Jews alike. Fr. Moloney also battled with prison authorities -- he threatened a hunger strike when guards tried to confiscate his vestments.

In 1997, Fr. Moloney's adopted son Jason was murdered in an apparent robbery in the Bronx. The warden refused to let Fr. Moloney attend the funeral.

In an absurd moment on the day his adopted son was buried, Fr. Moloney was called into the warden's office. The guards asked him if the warden's life was in danger because he wouldn't let Fr. Moloney attend the funeral. A defiant Fr. Moloney was later thrown in solitary confinement when the prison officials discovered that he had used a prison pay phone to say the funeral Mass in Hell's Kitchen via speaker-phone.

In November 1993, Fr. Moloney had been arrested with Sam Millar, a Northern Irish native and "blanket man" from the Long Kesh prison protests of the 1970s. Along with the $2 million the FBI claimed to have found in the
Stuyvesant Town apartment, they also found $168,000 at Lazarus House.

The FBI determined that only $100,000 was from the Brink's job. The evidence was videotapes of Fr. Moloney and Millar entering the apartment. In the end, Fr. Moloney and Millar were convicted of conspiracy to possess federally insured currency.

The story of Fr. Moloney's relationship to the Brink's money is murky. Fr. Moloney said he believed the $2 million belonged to an Irish illegal gambling syndicate that Millar worked for. "The money found at Lazarus House," he said, belonged to Polish and Irish illegal aliens.

"The FBI had no audio-tape, no videotape, no shred of evidence that linked me to the money," said Fr. Moloney. "They tried to destroy my character. I can look you eye to eye and tell you the FBI are liars. I had nothing to do with that money."

BORN in 1932, Fr. Moloney came from a staunch Republican family. His father was an anti-Treaty IRA man who was imprisoned in the Curragh during the Irish civil war.

"If I had stayed in Ireland I would have a been a rebel one of the most fanatical," said Fr. Moloney of his own Republican sympathies.

Fr. Moloney's career, however, took a different path As a young man, he aspired to be a Catholic hermit, but wound up coming to the U.S. in the mid-1950s to become a civil rights priest.

Instead of going to the American South, Fr. Moloney ran a New York literacy program as a lay Catholic. He was heavily influenced by the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who worked with the poor on the Lower East
Side. A supporter bought him a battered tenement building in 1961 and he set up Lazarus House for troubled young men. It took him three decades, but he was eventually ordained as a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which is loyal to Rome.

As the interview took place in front of Lazarus House, troops of nursery school students walked by on their way to Tompkins Square Park. Localpeople interrupted him to say hello and Fr. Moloney's own brother, a handyman and father of seven, passed the building. The brother had spent time in an Irish Republic prison for gun possession.

A young lady came up and reintroduced herself to Fr. Moloney. She knew him when she was a psychiatric patient at a city hospital, where Fr. Moloney is a night chaplain. She asked Fr. Moloney if he could help her find decent housing.

A while later, a handsome elderly Italian-American priest, an old friend of Fr. Moloney's, comes up. The two priests talk in hushed tones about a third priest who was tossed out of his New York City rectory on charges of sexual abuse. The archdiocese had turned its back on the accused priest. "I would not refuse to help that man find a place to stay," said Fr. Moloney vehemently.

In the 42 months that Fr. Moloney was in prison, Lazarus House was barely kept alive by lay volunteers. The residence, which receives no public money, had once housed and schooled 30 boys at a time.

Now there are less than half a dozen young men living there. A fire damaged the stately but battered building.

Released from prison in 1998, Fr. Moloney is still rebuilding. He gives a tour of his "store," a thrift shop full of furniture for sale. "I couldn't survive without the help of some Irish superintendents," he said.

The men work in luxury apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. When the wealthy throw out their Sub Zero refrigerators and their Viking stoves, the supers give them to Fr. Moloney, who sells them to benefit Lazarus House.

Plugging Fr. Moloney's name into Internet search engines turns up anti-Catholic Web sites from Belfast that portray Fr. Moloney as a bloodthirsty priest. The trashy London tabloid News of the World also told of Fr. Moloney speaking at a Clan na Gael meeting where he said that Ireland would not be free until every British soldier were off Irish soil, leaving dead or alive.

Fr. Moloney said the article was a complete fabrication, that he was never at that meeting, but he wishes the British Army a quick return to England. "All I wish the British soldiers is slain abhala--`safe home,'" he said.

FR. Moloney said he had serious concerns about the pervasive lack of economic justice in the North. And then there is the disarmament of the IRA. "If (British Prime Minster Tony) Blair wants the IRA to disarm, why doesn't he pull his Gestapo troops out of Occupied Ireland?

"I believe in peace with justice, and a war of defense, not offense," he said. "I would like to see peace given a chance, but only a little while ago, I spoke to kids in the Occupied Zone," what Fr. Moloney calls Northern Ireland. "They said, `Peace me eye.' With British occupation, there is not true peace.

"Two years ago, I met with seven men who spent 10 or more years in British prisons and were released under the Good Friday Agreement. They didn't see their comrades die just to surrender. They supported Gerry Adams, but were not happy with a divided country."

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