Return to priesthood unlikely, lawyer says
The Rev. Richard Arko offered his contrition Tuesday for growing marijuana inside his Norton church home.
His penance: two years’ probation.
Arko, 40, told Summit County Common Pleas Judge Patricia Cosgrove that the 35 marijuana plants growing in his church home were primarily for medical use.
It’s a contention Norton police detectives say they can’t confirm.
“At no time during the course of this investigation did we find any evidence to suggest he was growing marijuana for anything other than personal use,” Detective Thad Hete said after the hearing.
Arko was arrested in January when Norton police searched the Prince of Peace church rectory after an informant purchased $15 worth of marijuana from a man living at the residence.
Arko pleaded guilty Tuesday to felony charges of illegally cultivating marijuana and possession of criminal tools used to grow the plants.
Arko requested a leave of absence from the diocese and he said in court that his return to the priesthood is unlikely.
Apology to parish
Dressed in a suit and tie, Arko apologized to parishioners and his family for his arrest and took a jab at the media and the Cleveland Catholic Diocese for failing to give him a fair hearing.
He said he prays for the day that the state of Ohio recognizes the positive uses of marijuana.
“I strongly believe in the benefits of marijuana and the use for medical purposes. It’s very helpful to many people,” he said.
“I look forward to the day when perhaps this particular crime will not be punishable.”
Arko added, “I don’t know that I felt I had the best hearing in the media or even my own diocese. I hope to move on with my life and serve others as best I can.”
Norton police believe Arko had been growing and smoking marijuana for at least 10 years. Police reports show that the Rev.John McNulty, pastor at Holy Cross Church in Euclid who worked with Arko at the church in the early 1990s, told Norton officers he found marijuana plants growing around the church at the time.
In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal after Arko’s arrest, McNulty denied any prior knowledge of Arko’s smoking or growing marijuana.
“We have reason to believe he’s been cultivating and using marijuana for more than 10 years in three parishes and three different communities,” Hete said.
Arko left Holy Cross and was transferred to St. Mary’s Church in Barberton in 1994. In 2001, he was named administrator of Sacred Heart of Barberton and served both parishes until they merged and became Prince of Peace in July 2002.
Arko became pastor in March 2003.
Because Arko is a first-time offender, Cosgrove said she could not treat him any differently than a rich or poor lay person.
She also remarked about several letters of support she’s read from parishioners that showed Arko “made a difference in their lives” during difficult times.
“You obviously have a gift for helping people,” the judge told the priest.
The judge suspended a two-year prison sentence, ordered Arko to perform 100 hours of community service and undergo random drug testing during his two years of probation.
A charge of possessing drug paraphernalia — marijuana cigarette rolling papers and a rolling machine — was dismissed.
“You let down yourself, your congregation, and the diocese,” Cosgrove told the priest. “There is no sentence I can hand out that can be more stringent or difficult than the one you have self-imposed on yourself.”
Arko declined to comment further as he left the courthouse.
Sexual abuse claim
Diocese spokesman Bob Tayek said Arko’s future with the church is unclear because of a sexual abuse claim that arose after Arko’s arrest.
Prosecutors are still reviewing a claim by Andrew Smith, a Barberton man who told police he had been sexually abused by Arko since the age of 15.
Smith’s credibility has been called into question. He is the informant who went to the church and purchased marijuana from Jensen Powell, 24, who had been living in the parish house. Powell was sentenced to a halfway house and drug counseling after pleading guilty last month to drug trafficking.
Smith has a long history of drug abuse and is under a 10-count indictment on charges of forgery and receiving stolen property. He is accused of stealing credit cards and checks from Arko and the parish.
Tayek said Tuesday’s plea does not necessarily prevent Arko from returning to the church. However, because of the sexual abuse claims, Arko’s return to the church depends on a review by a diocesan board.
“The first thing on the agenda is to have the allegations of sexual abuse considered,” Tayek said.
Arko’s attorney, Don Varian, said the priest is negotiating with a diocese canon lawyer regarding his future. He also said it appears unlikely Arko will return to the priesthood.
During Arko’s hearing, prosecutors asked the judge to send the priest to prison, despite state sentencing laws that support probation for such offenses.
“His position of trust, I think, was important enough that he be held to a higher standard,” Assistant Prosecutor Nancy Mercurio said afterward.
“I understand his point of view, but it’s important with what he did and the fact that he was growing it in the rectory.”
Correspondent Gina Mace contributed to this report.
[Keyword: Richard A. Arko]