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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Catholic nun with a gambling habit was sentenced on Tuesday to community service and repayment of less than half of the $850,000 she embezzled from Iona College, where she worked as vice president of finance.
An attorney for Sister Marie Thornton, better known as Sister Susie, blamed "childhood demons" for the addiction that prompted her to send phony invoices to the Westchester County college to cover up for gambling sprees in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The teary nun, who pleaded guilty to embezzlement, apologized in U.S. District Court in Manhattan for the crime she committed.
"I'm sorry I hurt so many people I genuinely loved," said Thornton. "I'm sorry for embarrassing my religious community, my family and my friends."
Judge Kimba Wood ordered Thornton to complete 2,000 hours of community service and pay back $350,000, noting insurance covered the remaining $500,000. Thornton faced a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
Defense attorney Sanford Talkin told the judge that Thornton had been diagnosed as having a pathological gambling addiction. He said she gambled to deal with "childhood demons," although he declined to elaborate.
"Gambling gave her a freedom, a freedom of feeling like it was about her for a change," Talkin said. "For the first time in her life, she was able to stop the suffering internally."
The thefts began in 1999 and ended in 2009, when Thornton resigned from her position as vice president of finance at the New Rochelle college.
Thornton used a college credit card to get cash advances, created phony invoices to cover up the thefts and forged the school president's signature, said prosecutor Carrie Cohen.
She also secretly took out another line of credit to further her habit, the prosecutor said.
Urging the judge to impose a sentence that included prison time, Cohen said failure to do so "sends a wrong message to the general public."
"She (Thornton) forged signatures, created false documents and business records and stole a lot of money," Cohen said. "It was almost a million dollars."
Since her resignation, Thornton has undergone rehabilitation for her gambling addiction. She also has essentially been under lockdown by her order, The Sisters of St. Joseph in Pennsylvania, which forbids her from leaving the grounds.
"These 892 days have been long in isolation, pain, shame and humiliation that I can't even begin to describe," Thornton said.
"But because I've suffered through it, I'm stronger, I'm better and I'm grateful," she said.
Sister Connie Trainor from the order said that while Thornton must stay on the premises, her tendency toward solitary confinement is self-imposed.
"Our sisters reached out to her and out of her own shame, she felt the need to withdraw," Trainor said. "I don't want it to sound like it was something from the 1500s."
The judge said the order's confinement of Thornton was "sufficient" as punishment, and jail time was not merited because doctors have said Thornton isn't likely to compulsively gamble again.
Iona College issued a one-sentence statement to Reuters regarding Thornton's sentencing saying, "Today's court decision concludes a very unfortunate matter for all involved."
The college of some 5,000 students has come under fire from alumni and donors for never reporting the missing money to authorities and only mentioning the theft in its 2009 tax filing sent in February 2010 to the Internal Revenue Service.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton