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Father Walter Cuenin, former pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, did the right thing by taking responsibility for his actions. He accepted the archdiocese’s request that he submit his resignation after financial improprieties were discovered at his parish.
The problem was first uncovered when a routine payroll audit of a group of 20 parishes found financial practices that violated “Archdiocesan policy, Canon Law, or Archdiocesan statutes,” according to a statement issued by the archdiocese.
The archdiocese then brought in the outside firm of DeLoitte & Touche to conduct a thorough audit “to gain more information about the non-conforming practices that were uncovered and the overall state of parish finances.”
According to the archdiocese, what they found were “non-conforming” expenditures relating to:
“Mass stipends taken at a rate in excess of that permitted by Canon Law and Archdiocesan statutes;
“Automobile expenses funded by the parish in excess of Archdiocesan policies for expense reimbursement, which are updated regularly and circulated to all clergy; and
“Compensation taken from both the parish and the Archdiocese for the same time period time during a sabbatical.”
These amounted to between $75,000 and $85,000 — the equivalent of about four years salary for a priest.
Father Cuenin said that the expenditures were fully disclosed to parishioners but he has not contested the charges and has agreed to repay the funds. He further asked “that there be no form of protest about this decision.”
Still some parishioners are planning protests and are criticizing the archdiocese saying that the amount of stipends and the use of a leased car had been approved by the parish finance council. Some also claim that the decision was “payback” for his outspokenness on moral issues and his criticism of the Church hierarchy during the abuse crisis.
Finance councils certainly play an important role in parishes. However, they are only consultative bodies. Ultimately, responsibility for use of a parish’s funds rests with the pastor.
As for accusations that the audit findings were simply a pretext or part of a smear campaign, it should be noted that the financial improprieties at Our Lady’s only became public because Father Cuenin made them so. The archdiocese released details of the audit only after being accused of fabricating a reason for requesting Father Cuenin’s resignation.
In addition, if the archbishop was simply trying to “get rid” of Father Cuenin he could have simply moved him to a new assignment when his term as pastor recently expired. There was no need for any pretext.
To some extent we are witnessing a double standard. Some parishioners at Our Lady’s, prominent public figures, and newspaper columnists have been among those at the forefront of those calling for accountability on the part of Church leadership throughout the clergy abuse crisis and now the parish reconfiguration process. Financial accountability has been a large part of that call.
How, then, can they reconcile calling for full accountability and financial disclosure on the part of the archdiocese while at the same time asking that violation of basic norms that apply to every priest in this archdiocese be overlooked?
Several priests have been asked to resign under similar circumstances in recent years in Boston and elsewhere. Should some be treated differently?
Should some be allowed to receive two salaries while on sabbatical, as the audit found? Would any worker be allowed to do that at any job in this country without consequences?
As much as some parishioners may distrust the archdiocese and mourn the loss of a beloved pastor, we urge them to respect Father Cuenin’s desire that confrontation be avoided.
We encourage parishioners to welcome their new pastor, Father Christopher Coyne. Some have publicly criticized him for having served at one time as the spokesperson of the archdiocese. We invite those parishioners not to prejudge him but display the Christian charity and welcoming they say is a hallmark of Our Lady’s.
Parish life will continue at Our Lady’s with a new pastor, as it would in any parish of the archdiocese. Catholics are called to be united with the whole Church and not be dependent on one particular spiritual leader. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not belong to Paul, Apollos or Kefas. That is one of the gifts of the Catholic Church.