Strangers often popped into St. Jude's Catholic Church looking for handouts. Whatever their excuse, Father Tom Carolan never questioned their needs. In the 15 years he'd presided over the Warrensville Heights parish, the 75-year-old priest had developed a reputation for being a gentle, generous man.
Parishioners say he was the best pastor in St. Jude's 60-year history. They describe him as though he were Jesus himself -- merciful, selfless, and kind. When no one would baptize a baby born out of wedlock, he did. When a little boy showed up late for his First Communion, Father Tom only smiled. He never judged and always put others first.
So when a strange woman walked into St. Jude's rectory in 2005, Father Tom treated her no differently.
The 45-year-old had clearly let herself go. With a shabby, stretched-out T-shirt draped over her heavy frame, she looked like she'd done nothing but suck down RC Cola and shoot heroin for the past 20 years. Her skin was splotchy. Her eyes were two black holes.
She told Father that she was fresh out of jail and looking for work, but no one would hire her. Could he give her a job?
Sorry, said Father Tom. St. Jude's didn't have the money to hire. His parish was poor, having suffered a sharp decline in membership, thanks to years of white Catholic flight from Warrensville Heights. They were lucky to still be open.
Could he just spot her some cash? she asked, then launched into a sob story about how her husband was unemployed, needed medication, and no one would hire her. Father Tom reached into his wallet and handed her $40.
She thanked him profusely and embraced him.
It must have felt good to Father Tom -- his chaste, delicate frame being enveloped in the arms of a woman. Life had been hard over the last couple years. His health was declining as quickly as his congregation.
After several bad falls, he now walked with a slow, wobbly gait. Thanks to a series of small strokes, his memory was going too. He often forgot the Lord's Prayer at Mass and parishioners' names at receptions. Getting old fast --and alone -- wasn't easy.
As the woman held Father Tom, she could sense his loneliness. She could make him feel better, she promised. Their embrace turned into kissing, then caressing, until Father Tom was inside her.
It was over quickly. She thanked him again and left.
For the next two years, she continued to stop by. At first her visits were monthly, but they soon became daily. They stopped meeting in the rectory, opting instead for the privacy of Father Tom's house, which lay on church grounds. She would make him feel young. He would give her cash.
Father Tom knew it was wrong, but when he tried to call it off, she refused, saying she'd go to the diocese and tell of the affair. He agreed to give her whatever she wanted.
Every couple of weeks, the woman would return and remind Father Tom of his sin. He would pay his penance in $300 and $500 sums.
He'd often ask God how he got into this mess.
The answer was Elaine Presser.
Elaine Presser was no stranger to thievery. She married into one of the most corrupt families in Cleveland history.
Her father-in-law was the late Jackie Presser -- notorious Teamsters boss, Genovese family ally, and FBI rat.
In 1988, he died from cancer in his Lakewood home. That same year, Elaine filed for divorce from her first husband.
It wasn't long after that she fell in love with Jackie's son, Gary.
The two had known each other since junior high, but lost touch after graduation. Elaine moved to New York, got married, had kids. Gary got into the family business, working as vice president of Local 507.
When they finally became reacquainted, the attraction was instant. The two were married not long after the ink dried on Elaine's divorce. "We were so happy," Elaine says. "We bought a house -- a beautiful house. We were sober. We had everything. We were, like, normal. Then we lost everything."
After Jackie's death, the Teamsters wanted nothing to do with the Presser family. The name was bad for business. Gary stepped down from his position. "Since 1992, the Pressers haven't been affiliated with the union at all," says Al Mixon, president of Local 507.
Then, in 1996, Gary's stepmother was convicted of pilfering millions from his trust fund. "We always had money, and we never had to worry about things," Elaine says. "Then we had nothing. You know, I had a $15,000 engagement ring. It's all gone now."
Blacklisted by the Teamsters and without his inheritance, Gary landed a job with the circus. He traveled all over the country, setting up tents and loading tiger cages.
The travel took a toll on their marriage. When he'd hit the road, Elaine would distract herself with drugs. She was convicted of forging prescriptions for amphetamines.
As if things couldn't get any worse, Gary lost his job due to a back injury. Elaine descended into addiction, heroin being her drug of choice. She stopped caring about how she looked, what day it was, or where her kids were.
But without the money to fund her habit, she began forging checks. She also stole china and flatware from a stranger's home and hocked it with antique dealers. She wasn't the most cunning thief.
In March 2000, she walked into Highland Antiques, penniless and strung out. The owner immediately recognized her. She'd been in a month earlier and sold him stolen place settings. He called the cops and locked the door behind her.
She was arrested along with Gary, who'd accompanied her to the store. Gary was quickly released. Cops couldn't link him to the theft. Elaine, however, was held while police investigated a trail of some 300 bad checks she'd passed. She later pleaded guilty to burglary and theft, and was sentenced to three years in prison.
When she was released in 2003, Elaine struggled to stay clean. With Gary still out of work, times were tougher than ever. Then she had an idea.
Churches give money to the needy, she thought. I'm needy.
The first time Father John Blazek met Elaine was in early 2005. She showed up with her younger sister, Rosemarie Kovacic, at Gilmour Academy's Our Lady Chapel looking for financial assistance.
Elaine told Father Blazek that she needed money to cover her husband's medication. He'd suffered a back injury on the job, and his workers' comp hadn't kicked in. "They always had validation," Father Blazek says. "Their story was always very believable."
He gave them cash.
The women continued to stop by sporadically, always with a seemingly valid need. Once, it was a birthday present for a niece. Then it was to bail Elaine's son out of jail. But mostly it was medicine for her husband. Father Blazek was always willing to help. "There were so many stories here, it was crazy," he says. "But their stories always seemed so sincere -- you know, the husband being out of work because of a back injury. They just seemed like a family struggling to keep it together."
That part was true. Gary really was out of work, and Elaine really had been in prison. But the money wasn't going to aid health and hearth. She was using it to get high.
The scam seemed so effortless, so perfect. All she had to do was tell a priest one of her many sob stories, and she was $20 richer.
Her sister would often tag along, watching Elaine work her magic. A thinner, prettier version of Elaine, Kovacic had problems of her own: a heroin and crack habit, a broken family, and a 2001 conviction for solicitation.
What they didn't have was a car. So Elaine called her friend, Leonard Goldberg, and told him that priests were handing out cash like candy. He agreed to drive them wherever they wanted to go.
Each morning, the threesome would pile into Goldberg's '91 LeBaron and head to churches and synagogues all over town.
Some days they'd pop in at St. Paschal Babylon to see Rev. Michael Arkins about some cash for tampons. Other days, they'd hit up Rabbi Eric Bram at Suburban Temple, because they wanted to throw a baby shower for a niece.
Rev. Allen Trapp, of St. John Lutheran Church in South Euclid, remembers the first time he met the trio.
It was March 21, 2005. Goldberg waddled into Rev. Trapp's office and inquired about getting money to fix his car. The pastor, who describes Goldberg as "a short, balding, stout man," gave him $25.
Later that day, Elaine showed up with a story about needing money for food and gas. She told Rev. Trapp that she'd recently been in jail and her husband was out of work. He gave her $60.
A few weeks later, Elaine came back with Gary, whom Trapp describes as being "of slight stature, swarthy complexion, stubble-faced, [with a] bad hair-replacement job or toupee." He gave him $50.
For the next several months, Elaine would randomly show up, ready with another elaborate tale. In all, Rev. Trapp gave her $300.
Then, in October 2005, St. John shut down its outside assistance program "due to financial problems at church," Trapp says.
That was the last time he saw Elaine. He told her they no longer provided cash, but he could offer Giant Eagle food cards. She said no, thanks and never came back.
"At no time were improper advances or suggestions made," the pastor says. "After 34 years in ministry, I take precautions to avoid compromising situations."
Too bad Father Tom didn't do the same.
After their first several encounters, Elaine felt like she'd struck gold. While the other priests were giving her twenties, Father Tom was writing her checks for as much as $580 -- and all she had to do was sleep with him.
She told Kovacic about her sugar-daddy priest. "You should go too," she said.
In the fall of 2005, Goldberg drove Kovacic out to St. Jude's. She would later recount her first meeting with Father to police. "Father Tom had his dick out in his hand and told me to kiss his dick," she wrote in a police statement. "So I did, and he already ejaculated. Afterwards he asked me how much money. I told him $20."
She says the sexual encounters stopped after two more meetings. From then on, she would simply accompany Elaine to St. Jude's. Goldberg would always wait in the car.
Their visits became daily, raising suspicion among church staff. "Their phone calls were persistent," remembers Claudia McCollim, the parish secretary. "They were three to six times a day. But they were always very friendly."
"I thought they were overly friendly," says Suzanne Horvath, the pastoral associate. Still, they relayed the messages to Father Tom, who would walk to his house to greet the women.
Inside his modest one-story home, Elaine would press the priest for more money. Though they'd stopped having sex long ago, he still obliged with whatever she needed.
Then one day, he refused. "My sister threatened him by saying she would call Bishop Pilla," Kovacic told police. "And when she threatened Father Tom for money, he would give it to her -- $550 or $350."
Elaine's threats weren't completely empty.
In May 2005, she and Gary went downtown to see Father Lawrence Jurcak, a secretary and vicar for the diocese.
Elaine told Father Jurcak that she wanted to report a priest for sexual misconduct. "I explained that nothing told to me would be confidential," he later reported to police.
Elaine suddenly fell silent. "Can't you just do something without my name?" she asked.
Father Jurcak said no. The couple left without relaying further details. Instead, Elaine continued to blackmail Father Tom for the following year.
Yet the priest was rapidly sinking into senility. "We watched his body and mind fail," says parishioner Virginia DeSantis. "He fell a lot. And as he kept falling, more and more railings were added in the church and then between his house and the church. We also knew his mind was going . . . He got to the point that he even needed a note on the altar to help him get through the whole Mass."
When Elaine would show up, he'd try to explain that St. Jude's just didn't have the money to pay her. "Well, I'll just have to go downtown then," she'd threaten.
Father Tom would simply rip a blank check from the parish checkbook and hand it over.
After each visit, Goldberg would drive the sisters to a check-cashing joint, where they'd fill in the checks for whatever amount their addictions dictated. "We would always get a ride from [Goldberg] to get our drugs," Kovacic says.
But eventually, the checks started bouncing.
Father Tom began receiving calls from angry cashiers and gas-station owners who'd handed Elaine and Kovacic upward of $1,500, only to find that the parish account was empty.
Father Tom finally had enough. He went to the Warrensville Heights police and reported that the church's checks had been stolen. He also said that he was being blackmailed.
He confessed everything he could remember, which wasn't much. He couldn't recall when he met the women, how much money he gave them, or how many blank checks were missing. But he did admit to having sexual encounters with both.
The next day, he resigned as St. Jude's pastor.
Two days after Father Tom went to police, Elaine and Kovacic entered the Suburban Temple in Beachwood, while Goldberg waited in the car.
The women were greeted by Rabbi Bram, who was already well acquainted with the sisters. He'd helped them numerous times -- and turned them away just as many.
On this occasion, Elaine said she wanted to pay him back. She pulled a St. Jude's check from her purse and handed it to him along with Kovacic's identification card. She told him they worked at St. Jude's as cleaning women. He could have their paycheck, she said.
Rabbi Bram analyzed the check's signature. Father Tom's handwriting bore an uncanny resemblance to Kovacic's. He phoned police.
Back at the Warrensville Heights police station, Elaine claimed that Father Tom had raped her. But police found it ludicrous that a priest in such declining health could assault a woman. When asked how they discovered her allegations were unfounded, Detective Darren Senft just laughs. Elaine now admits the allegation is untrue.
Police followed the trail of St. Jude's checks, which totaled more than $19,000. They also collected statements from clergymen who'd given the women money. All said there was nothing sexual in their encounters.
When Father Blazek was told of Father Tom's intimacies with the sisters, he was stunned. "I'd only met him through Liturgy," he says. "He was just a very generous guy. He's got to be devastated. Whatever they were holding over his head -- sexual things or whatever -- I don't believe that's how it started, not for an instant. It doesn't fit his character at all."
Elaine, Kovacic, and Goldberg were all indicted on multiple counts of forgery and theft. Father Tom was also arrested for stealing money from St. Jude's account to pay them off.
He was living in St. Anthony of Padua's Friary in Brooklyn -- if you can call it living. He began suffering from severe dementia, depression, and incontinence. He couldn't get around without a walker. His health was deteriorating so rapidly, he had to be moved to a convalescent home for priests in Illinois.
As he awaited his hearing, his former parishioners stood firmly by his side. They wrote 76 letters to the court on his behalf, begging for mercy. "Please don't put him in jail," wrote Annie Hook, who'd known Father Tom since she was a little girl. "I have never been a victim of blackmail, but that is exactly what Father Tom is, a victim."
They told tales of his compassion and kindness. Evelyn Seiss says that when a family friend had a child out of wedlock, no priest in Cleveland would baptize the baby -- except for Father Tom.
Joan Bisner wrote that when her first son was born in 1965, she didn't think twice about what she would name him. "I wanted him to be able to look up to someone who respects other people, who is kind, loving, fair-minded," she says. "Naturally, his name is Tom."
In October, Elaine, Kovacic, and Goldberg all pleaded guilty to attempted extortion. Elaine got six months under house arrest. Her sister and Goldberg got probation. "I'm not a bad person," Elaine says. "I made some terrible choices. There was just so much involved, so much in the last 19 years, and it just pisses me off. I felt like 'You owe me.' Then I started doing, like, crazy things."
In November, St. Jude's closed its doors. The parish, like its pastor, had been in decline for years, its membership falling from 4,700 to 360 as the flock increasingly moved to more distant suburbs like Solon.
Its blond brick structure now sits boarded up on Richmond Road, surrounded by zigzagging interstates and strip malls. Father Tom's house is eerily empty.
Due to his encroaching dementia, he couldn't talk to Scene. "He spends a lot of time in prayer in our chapel," says Brother Kevin Lenihan, his caretaker. "Hopefully, he's moving through this. He doesn't talk about it at all."
In January, he pleaded guilty to attempted theft and was ordered to repay $19,693 to the Cleveland Diocese. "He definitely accepts responsibility for his actions in this case," says his attorney, Ian Friedman. "The county prosecutor handled this case very fairly. But there is no question that this would not have occurred if it had not been for the planning and preparation of these two women."
Over the phone, Elaine closes the window so the neighbors outside can't hear her. She paints a very different portrait, claiming she was the victim. "He wasn't that sick," she says. "He asked me for a hug and then literally stuck his hands down my pants. Plus, it was my sister who stole those checks, and now she's gonna get off clean because she always does. I always take the rap."
She also claims that Goldberg still makes a living off of begging from churches. "He's the worst, and he's still doing it," she says. "It's like a full-time job, and he lives out of his car."
Born and raised Catholic, Elaine no longer wants anything to do with the Church. "I'll tell you one thing -- I'm not a Catholic anymore," she says. "I think it's just crooked. Now I go to the one of these praise-the-Lord, born-again churches. I much prefer it."
Elaine says she began calling on churches because she was truly in need. She'd just gotten out of jail, she couldn't find a job, and Gary was in bad shape. Told through exasperated sighs, it's a sad and convincing tale -- one that any good priest would have a hard time questioning, if he didn't know she was a manipulative junkie. After all, it is his job to help, not judge.
"The sad thing about this is that most of us really are very willing to help out those who are poor and truly in need," says Father Blazek. "I think we go beyond the call. We are very vulnerable to a scheme like this. And if you are skeptical, I think you miss the point."