As an employee of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Anita Guzzardi, was considered a trusted servant of the church. Once, she headed an office that tried to restore the faith of strayed Catholics.
In her time off, she liked to play the slots at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City and to take vacations, using her American Express card.
And for years, Guzzardi paid those credit card bills by checks from the archdiocese - nearly $1 million in all, according to sources familiar with a continuing investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
The alleged embezzlement went on for at least six years, but no one in the church caught it, sources said. Instead, it was discovered by a fraud investigator with American Express who wondered why the archdiocese was ringing up charges at a casino.
Guzzardi, 43, of Barrington, was fired last year when the thefts were discovered. Her lawyer, Louis R. Busico, says she is "cooperating fully" with the investigation.
"I've been in contact with the District Attorney's Office, and I've been in contact with counsel for the archdiocese, and we're willing to work with them to resolve any issues about alleged misappropriation of funds," Busico said.
"The entire incident is very unfortunate for the church as an institution, and for many individuals."
Indeed, the problem could not have come at a worse time for the archdiocese, which is already struggling to deal with parishioners' anguish over a sexual-abuse scandal and anger over its plan to close 49 Catholic schools.
The incident also raises questions about the financial management of the archdiocese, the sixth largest in the United States. By the time the theft was uncovered in July, Guzzardi had risen to the job of chief financial officer - the person who's supposed to put controls in place to stop financial shenanigans.
"There have to be questions about the internal audit process, you can't deny that," said John "Jack" Quindlen, former chief financial officer for DuPont Co. and a former member of the finance council for the archdiocese.
"It's hard to feel good about failure," he said.
Quindlen said no one had any reason to suspect Guzzardi. "I was as shocked as anyone else when this surfaced. She knew her stuff, knew what she was talking about," he said.
"You wring your hands and say, 'How did this happen?' " Quindlen said. "If you set out to deceive anyone, it's not hard to do. It's a question of how long it lasts."
Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, declined to comment.
Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the church was continuing to work with the District Attorney's Office and declined further comment. She said the church last year hired attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. and the accounting firm of Parente Randolph to do an internal audit.
Guzzardi, born Anita DiCicco, grew up in South Philadelphia and attended St. Nicholas of Tolentine elementary school, where a website lists her as inaugural president of the school alumni association.
An M.B.A. graduate of La Salle University, She is not a certified public accountant. After working as coordinator of the archdiocese "renewal" office, she went to work in the financial office, eventually winning a promotion to controller and then acting chief financial officer. Last year, she was officially given the CFO post, shortly before the alleged thefts surfaced.
Guzzardi had check-signing authority, and she sent church checks to American Express to pay her bills. A fraud investigator reported that pattern last year to the District Attorney's Office.
"We have sophisticated monitoring systems and controls in place to detect fraudulent activity," said Leah M. Gerstner, American Express vice president for public affairs. She declined further comment.
Some of the money went to gambling at the Borgata, where she was a rated player, eligible for comps. A spokeswoman, Liza Costandino, said the casino wouldn't comment on customers.
Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, said it was rare to see financial fraud at the top levels of an archdiocese.
He co-wrote a study of Catholic church finances that found that fraud, usually at the parish level, was more common in dioceses without a well-trained chief financial officer.
"There must have been some lack of controls," Zech said, "if this involves that amount of money for that period of time."
Audits wouldn't necessarily catch fraud of that type, he said, because corporate auditors typically do not dig deeply into individual checks and credit-card bills.
Even though millions flow through the archdiocesan accounts every week, Zech said, the office has never been known for its strong professional management.
Instead, he said, the archdiocese for years held its finances in strict secrecy. He said he believed that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who took over last year, would continue a trend toward openness in the church's affairs.
"In the past, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was abysmal in terms of financial transparency and accountability," Zech said. "If you want people to give money, you have to let them know where it's going."
Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, said the missing money likely played no role in the decision to close schools. Most of the money for the schools comes from the parishes themselves, and the archdiocese doesn't use operating money to subsidize them anyway, she said.
Chaput "needs that money to run the diocese, I think," Schwartz said. "I don't think [the missing] million dollars helped any, but I think they're in deeper debt than that."