Man’s ruse nets donations from Catholics

By Celine Klosterman

In an apparent scam, a man claiming to need money to attend his father’s funeral in Texas received donations from at least three Quad-City parishes, but leaders at those parishes say the ruse shouldn’t discourage giving.

A man described as being in his mid-20s, dark-haired and well-dressed approached Catholics in at least four Iowa parishes from mid-February to early March seeking money or rides. He has claimed to be a University of Iowa student who attends the Newman Catholic Student Center or St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, and a graduate of the nonexistent “National Catholic University.”

He showed an ID bearing the name Michael A. Farha II to Father Mike Spiekermeier, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport, but an online search of the University of Iowa phonebook turns up no such name. And Father Ed Fitzpatrick, Newman Center director, said he knows no such person.

“We know we get hit sometimes,” said Fr. Spiekermeier, who wrote a $150 check to the man from the St. Paul’s Works charity fund. “…I wouldn’t have normally done this, but he said it was an emergency.”

St. Paul’s typically gives Salvation Army vouchers for people seeking aid, Fr. Spiekermeier said.

A few days after speaking to the pastor, Farha approached several people after Mass on Feb. 21 at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Davenport, including Sister Judy Herold, SSND, the parish’s pastoral associate. They gave him a total of about $50, she said.

Later, around Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, the man visited the Blessed Sacrament chapel at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf before asking the parish’s pastor, Father Robert McAleer, for $100.

The priest paid him that amount with personal money. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard as tight a story as his,” Fr. McAleer said, citing the man’s references to Fr. Fitzpatrick and the Iowa City parishes.

But Farha didn’t convince Father William Wiegand, pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Davenport, during a Feb. 26 visit.

“He got upset and threatening with me,” Fr. Wiegand said. “He said he was going to call the bishop to tell him what a rotten and un-Christian priest I was.”

On March 3, a Catholic who had attended daily Mass at St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island, Ill., sent a warning about the man to the Davenport Diocese, which forwarded the warning to leadership groups in the diocese. The Catholic, Steve Goebel, believes the man is the same person as an "Abe" he drove, on request, from St. Pius to St. Paul the Apostle on March 2.

Goebel said the man’s story grew suspicious when the passenger claimed he graduated from “National Catholic University.” That lie prompted the driver to talk to Fr. Spiekermeier — who’d already run into the man.

Members of other parishes have driven the man to the Raddison in downtown Davenport and Hampton Inn & Suites in Moline, Ill., according to Frs. McAleer and Spiekermeier. 

Still, the priests maintain a Christian perspective.

“My feeling is I don’t want to judge my charity. I don’t want to quit being charitable,” said Fr. McAleer. “…I judge what he did as wrong, but when people come to my door, I don’t want to judge them. I’ll try to do the best I can, but I’ll make mistakes.”

“I just hope he was able to use (the money) for a good cause,” Sr. Herold said.  “…When people are desperate enough to make up stories like that, there’s got to be a great need.”

“We don’t want things like that to stop us from giving and being compassionate,” she added.

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