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Omaha priest arrested, facing charges of theft, abuse of vulnerable adult

He said he used funds from late priest’s estate to help homeless man after he ran out of his own money to give him.
Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 11:57 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - An Omaha priest was arrested Friday morning accused of stealing from an incapacitated retired priest who had willed his estate to the Archdiocese of Omaha, saying he was giving the money to a homeless man.

The Rev. Michael F. Gutgsell was arrested at 7:35 a.m. Friday and taken to Douglas County Jail. He appeared in court Friday afternoon to face charges of theft and abuse, and was released on his own recognizance.

His preliminary hearing is set for Nov. 24.

Gutgsell’s attorney released a statement following Friday’s hearing:

“Since learning of an open criminal investigation, Fr. Michael Gutgsell has fully cooperated with law enforcement. Fr. Gutgsell made arrangements to turn himself in as required by statute immediately upon his knowledge and confirmation of an arrest warrant.

We are saddened and disappointed in the filing of charges by the Douglas County Attorney. We will await the outcome of the pending investigation and allow the justice system to work. We are confident as these claims continue to be thoroughly investigated that an appropriate and positive outcome will be forthcoming. We ask for patience and privacy during this process and extend our sincere appreciation for those that have supported Fr. Gutgsell throughout these difficult times.”

Joseph P. Naatz, attorney

According to court documents, Gutgsell is accused of stealing $154,732 from an individual between Oct. 12, 2018, and January 2020. He faces two Class 3A felony charges: theft of $5,000 or more and abuse of a vulnerable adult.

Father Gutgsell had been the priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Springfield, Neb., until July 2021.

Court documents state that Sarpy County auditors had found “irregularities” in the church finances, specifically that the Gutgsell had the bookkeeper write out 76 checks, totaling about $123,000, to the priest between October 2019 and July 2021.

The Archdiocese of Omaha called him in for an interview on Aug. 2, at which time he admitted to taking $180,000, saying he was giving the money to a homeless man he had met in May 2013 while he was a pastor at St. Cecelia Cathedral Church in Omaha.

Subpoenaed bank records found Gutgsell had written 111 checks, totaling $167,382, to himself from the account of a retired priest who had died in December 2019 and willed his estate to the Archdiocese of Omaha. Gutgsell, who was made power of attorney or personal representative on the retired priest’s accounts in January 2017, also made 14 other cash withdrawals totaling $11,660, documents state. With access to retirement and brokerage accounts, Gutgsell used the funds to write himself checks. He also purchased about $50,000 in mutual funds in November 2019, court records show.

Gutgsell said he gave the money to a homeless man he had been giving his own money to, noting that the man disappeared for three months about three months after they met, documents state. When the man reappeared, he again asked for money. At one point the man said he would reimburse Gutgsell using a Social Security disability account that was being withheld from him. The priest said over time he paid $250,000 from his own personal funds before eventually draining his banking, retirement, and insurance accounts.

The pastor told investigators that he believed the homeless man, who was not Catholic or a member of his parish, to be a very sick homeless man who needed his help, recounting stories the man had told him about how he had helped police by “breaking up fights and stopping shoplifters,” court records state. But there was always a “complication” that would arise delaying the man’s disability payout in order to reimburse Gutgsell.

Court documents state that in early 2017 and again in October 2019, Gutgsell began taking money from the archdiocese when he began running out of his own funds. He said he had been working to pay back the money, reimbursing about $19,000.

In total, the pastor said he had given the man about $700,000 from May 2013 to July 2021, records state.

This summer the archdiocese directed Gutgsell to resign as the pastor of St. Joseph’s and placed him on indefinite administrative leave.

“The Rev Michael F. Gutgsell was recently charged by the Douglas County Attorney for attempted theft by unlawful taking and vulnerable adult abuse. Both of these charges are Class IIIA felonies.

The Archdiocese of Omaha will have no comment since the matter now belongs to law enforcement and the judicial system.”

Spokesman for the Archdiocese of Omaha

Managing Editor Kevin Westhues contributed to this report.

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