CHICAGO -- Within weeks of arriving at St. Walter Catholic Church in Roselle, Ill., the Rev. John Regan began stealing from the collection plate to fund his gambling addiction.
He stashed checks in a private bank account and spent the money at casinos in Elgin and Joliet. He lost big, blowing $116,000 in less than a year at one of the riverboats, prosecutors say. By the time the Diocese of Joliet figured out what was going on, Regan, who last week pleaded guilty to theft, had taken nearly $300,000.
It's a striking case but not an unusual one, say addiction counselors, and it illustrates a problem they expect to grow if gambling expands in Illinois.
Two to 3 percent of adults are problem gamblers, experts say, and they can exact a tremendous toll on their families and communities. As Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn weighs whether to allow five new casinos and thousands of new slot machines, advocates hope he will make one question part of his calculations:
Is gambling's social cost greater than its payout?
Researchers have examined this for years, and some have concluded that the answer is yes. Baylor University economist Earl Grinols estimates that for every dollar gambling brings in, three dollars are lost on crime, unemployment, addiction treatment and other costs.
"The research indicates that the damage is bigger than benefits to society," he said.
Others are skeptical. Doug Walker, an economics professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said expenses attributed to gambling might actually be due to other things, such as drug abuse or alcoholism.
"I would argue that it's not possible to come up with a very good estimate of the social cost," he said. "That's not to say it doesn't exist. It's just hard to be precise."
Those who back gambling's expansion say it could bring Illinois $1.5 billion in upfront fees, $500 million annually in new tax revenue and untold millions more in economic development. Regan's case, by contrast, highlights gambling's potential price tag.
The priest arrived at St. Walter in June 2006 after 13 years as the Joliet Diocese's vocations director. Regan, now 47, swiftly made a good impression.
"I thought he was really great," said parishioner Karen Gerovac, 69. "His services were very meaningful. I just thought he was a real terrific person."
But DuPage County prosecutors say that within a month of becoming pastor, Regan opened at a local bank the "Church of St. Walter Special Needs Account." He alone had access to it.
That was where he secreted a $500 check Gerovac had written to the church, along with many other contributions. From that account, authorities said, Regan wrote checks to himself and made hundreds of ATM withdrawals at Harrah's in Joliet and Grand Victoria in Elgin.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the Washington-based National Council on Problem Gambling, said thievery is a hallmark of gamblers who are in over their heads.
"Many, if not most problem gamblers report committing white-collar crimes to finance their gambling," he said. "They tell themselves they're just borrowing the money and will pay it back once they hit it big."
Regan's pilfering continued for about two years until the bank noticed suspicious transactions and alerted the diocese, which swiftly uncovered the thefts, officials say. The diocese says it immediately alerted authorities and suspended Regan from priestly ministry.
Spokesman Doug Delaney said the diocese repaid the parish for the thefts, with some of the money coming from insurance and some from other funds. He said Regan, who made $25,000 a year as a priest, has agreed to reimburse the diocese.
Church officials did not pay for Regan's legal defense, but they have had to absorb other expenses related to his crime. They sent him to a Pennsylvania behavioral health center that specializes in treating the addictions of Catholic clergy. They got another priest to replace him at St. Walter. And they continue to pay for his lodging, housing him with another priest (Delaney did not know the dollar value of these items, but said they were likely minimal.)
There were public expenses, too, including the investigation and prosecution conducted by the DuPage County state's attorney's office and the 10 days Regan spent in the DuPage County Jail (officials could not provide an estimate of those costs).
And should he receive prison time -- he could receive anything from probation to 15 years behind bars at his August sentencing -- the public tab would go higher still: It costs the Illinois Department of Corrections about $22,000 to house an inmate for a year.
Researchers have added up those expenses and others, including lost work time, unemployment and stress-related illness, to estimate the social toll of problem gamblers. Grinols, the Baylor economist, calculates that introducing gambling in a community costs each adult $166, while returning only $54 in benefits.
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Not everyone accepts that the price of legalized gambling can be neatly teased out.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who helped lead the push to expand gambling, said those driven to wager uncontrollably already have ample opportunity to do so, from the lottery to horse tracks to bookies. Additional casinos and slot machines will attract visitors from out of the area and recapture Illinois gamblers who go to other states to bet, he said.
"A person living in the city of Chicago has only to drive to Indiana to gamble legally," he said. "The fact that it's a little closer to that person, there's no evidence that it will make them gamble more."
Researchers actually have looked at that question: A 1999 study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center concluded that the prevalence of problem gambling is twice as high for those living within 50 miles of a casino as it is for those who live farther away.
Whyte noted, however, that the study's results have not been replicated. His guess, based on experience rather than research, was that more gambling in Illinois might not create many new compulsive gamblers, but could make the habit worse for those who already have it.
"It probably increases severity, but we can't really prove yet that when you add X number of slot machines, you get Y number of addicts," he said.
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