The priest of the Rincón de San Lázaro church in Hialeah was suspended of his duties Wednesday after a video of him gambling at slot machines in three Miami-Dade casinos emerged.
Rev. Orlando Molina has been suspended indefinitely until an internal investigation is completed, said Michel Joseph Pugin, bishop of the U.S. Catholic Church, founded in 1949 under Catholic precepts but not under the Vatican’s jurisdiction.
“I am surprised. I almost had a heart attack,” Pugin said. “Priests cannot be involved in this type of situation, especially in gambling or any other activity that can bring scandal to the church.”
In a news conference at the popular church at 1190 E. Fourth Ave., Pugin said he did not have evidence to accuse Molina of stealing offerings to play at slot machines, as a group of parishioners claimed in an anonymous letter sent to the media with the video.
Molina, a 51-year-old Nicaraguan who has served more than two decades as the church’s priest, said his suspension was unfair and that he never stole money from the offerings.
“It’s an exaggerated and unfair decision,” Molina told El Nuevo Herald. “I hope that the case is examined and my innocence is proven.”
The video shows that Molina was followed for 13 hours on an undisclosed date, from the moment he left the San Lázaro temple at 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. the following day, when he returned to his home in Opa Locka.
At 7:20 p.m., Molina was filmed entering an unidentified casino with another man. There, after losing money, he hit one of the slot machines.
A couple of hours later, he and his companion went to Calder Casino & Race Course in Miami Gardens to continue gambling. At 12:31 a.m., Molina went to a shop where checks are cashed, Cash Advance Store, and then continued at the Magic City Casino in Miami. At 6:29 a.m. he got on a bus to return home.
Molina said he suspected that a private detective hired by a person with whom he had a dispute at the church had followed him. But he did not say who the person was or what the argument was about.
Molina, who does not consider himself a compulsive gambler, said that in the last three months he has been visiting casinos frequently. He called himself an austere man who uses the bus because he does not have a car. He said that last year he filed for bankruptcy and is facing foreclosure on his house.
The case, revealed Tuesday by Mario Vallejo, a television reporter for Univisión’s Channel 23 in Miami, has shaken parishioners, who visit the church every day to present offerings to San Lázaro, the miracle-performing saint attributed with healing powers.
Mercedes Ferrer, who visited the temple Wednesday, said cases like Molina’s fuel suspicion over the mismanagement of offerings.
“What has happened is deplorable,” Ferrer said. “I think measures should be taken to prevent these things.”
Another parishioner, Rubén Calderín, said that Molina would never misappropriate offerings for his own benefit.
“He is a good priest,” Calderín said. “I have known him for years and I don’t believe he is using money from the offerings to gamble.”
Daniel Alvarez, professor of history and religious studies at Florida International University, said that the case requires an investigation to get to the bottom of whether offerings have been misused.
He added that the suspension should have been applied after it had been known for certain that there was an irregularity.
“Actually, he is being suspended simply for visiting casinos,” Alvarez said. “Every person is innocent until proven guilty.”
Joaquín González, president of the church’s board, said that offerings are collected in collection boxes that have locks. He said Molina does not have a key to those locks.
“If he gambled money at casinos it wasn’t San Lázaro’s money,” González said. “Father Molina has nothing to do with the offerings.”