Forest Hills church bilked woman, 92, for $1M: Suit

By Brendan Browne

A former priest at Our Lady Queens of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills and a home-care attendant scammed a 92-year-old Queens woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease out of about $1 million, the woman’s niece claims in a lawsuit filed recently.

The suit alleges that Monsignor Thomas Gradilone, who retired two years ago amid allegations that he squandered $2 million in church funds, and home-care attendant Donna Carasquillos conspired to take advantage of Emily Cummings and the confused state she was suffering from in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

The 81-page civil suit, which contains racketeering and undue influence charges, was filed April 30 by a lawyer representing Cummings’ niece, Mary Ann Stoepker.

She has worked to take control of the elderly woman’s affairs since she learned of her aunt’s alleged financial transactions with the church. Stoepker managed to have her aunt declared legally incompetent in May 2001 and obtained legal counsel for her.

The suit accuses others working in Gradilone’s former parish at 72-55 Austin St. and the Brooklyn Diocese, which has authority over the church, of conspiring in the plot. The plaintiff is asking for triple damages or $3 million.

Attorneys for Gradilone and Carasquillos declined to comment. Kevin Kearney, a lawyer for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said his client had not answered the complaint and would not discuss the matter further.

Monsignor Joseph Funaro of the Forest Hills parish could not be reached and Father Daniel Weiscopf had no comment on the allegations in the suit.

The suit comes about six months after an investigation concluded that there was “a disturbing pattern of questionable financial transactions” at the church when Gradilone served as pastor. Though the Queens district attorney said there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges, there were reports that Gradilone was funneling church funds to friends.

The list of friends included two convicted burglars – George Schwiegert, of Howard Beach, and Frank Vivona, who sources said at the time were living on the streets in the Rockaways.

Gradilone and church officials arranged for Carasquillos to serve as an attendant to Cummings, who lives in Forest Hills, after the retired seamstress displayed signs of paranoia and needed help in 1998, said Stoepker’s lawyer, James Cahill.

Within months, Cahill contended, Carasquillos and Gradilone allegedly began draining Cummings’ bank accounts. Over the next year and a half, Carasquillos and Gradilone bilked Cummings for about $200,000 each, the suit claims.

The home-care attendant allegedly used some of the money to help pay for her son’s college education, and part of Gradilone’s share went to pay for a friend’s living expenses and rent, the suit claims.

“How can you start taking money from somebody when they have a disability?” Cahill said in a telephone interview.

In March 1999, Gradilone allegedly began meddling with Cummings’ will, hoping to largely exclude her family from funds, according to the suit. He was able to convince her to change her power of attorney and beneficiaries of her will, the suit alleges.

Now Carasquillos, Gradilone and other defendants named in the suit control her $600,000 estate, said Cahill.

“In truth, the facts were that defendant Monsignor Thomas Gradilone was converting and appropriating plaintiff’s money, property, and assets to his own use,” the suit states.

The alleged plot came to a halt when Stoepker discovered through the media that Gradilone was knee-deep in the church funds scandal, Cahill said.

Stoepker knew her aunt was involved with the church and was horrified to learn of Cummings’ financial transactions, Cahill said. Stoepker believes Cummings’ poor mental health allowed Gradilone and Carasquillos to con her and she soon obtained legal help, Cahill said.

Reach reporter Brendan Browne by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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