Jackson Heights priest guilty in $50K theft

By Evan Weinberger

The Rev. John Johnston, 64, entered a guilty plea to criminal possession of stolen property on Feb. 25. He originally pleaded guilty to grand larceny charges on Feb. 17.

Both charges are felonies and carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison, which Johnston could have faced if he had not reached an agreement with prosecutors.

Instead, Johnston was expected to be sentenced to five years of probation and has been ordered to return the $50,000 to St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, the DA said in a statement.

The former priest had been celebrating mass at St. Martin of Tours for more than 30 years, according to the Queens district attorney's office. Officials from St. Martin of Tours declined to comment.

Johnston's “conduct represents a betrayal of the trust of his parishioners who looked to him for spiritual guidance and moral leadership,” Brown said.

Johnston was originally arrested Oct. 7 on charges of aggravated harassment after allegedly making threatening phone calls to a Catholic school principal in Brooklyn. The phone calls allegedly were in response to a disagreement that forced him to retire from a New Jersey school he had taught at for 24 years, the TimesLedger Newspapers reported.

During a search of Johnston's apartment at 78-12 35th Ave. in Jackson Heights, police found $80,000 in cash and envelopes marked with “St. Martin of Tours, Weekly Sacrifice,” parishioners' names and dollar amounts, as well as a .38-caliber pistol, the DA said. Of the $80,000, only $50,000 could be traced to St. Martin of Tours.

“Investigations showed that $50,000 was what was stolen from St. Martin of Tours,” said a spokeswoman for Brown's office. Firearms charges were also covered in the plea bargain, the spokeswoman said.

Joseph Stello, Johnston's attorney, said his client took “nickels and dimes” over 25 years. “Nobody knows how much he took,” Stello said. Johnston was scheduled to be sentenced April 14 at State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens. He will have to repay St. Martin of Tours before then, Stello said.

Stello said Johnston agreed to the plea to clear his conscience. “From the beginning, he told me to ignore any statute of limitations,” Stello said. “He wanted to get this off his chest.”

Johnston was sentenced to five days of community service and one day of anger management classes on misdemeanor harassment charges in Brooklyn on Feb. 26. The high school was part of the Christian Brothers' Order.

Johnston was forced to retire from a Christian Brothers' school in New Jersey after 24 years, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney's office said.

According to Stello, Johnston was having a pension dispute with his school in New Jersey and the Brooklyn Archdiocese.

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