Newton Parishioners Hold Vigil to Protest Pastor's Resignation

By Mark Pratt
Associated Press, carried in Boston Globe [Newton MA]
September 26, 2005

BOSTON --A popular Catholic priest removed by the Boston Archdiocese as pastor of the nationally recognized parish he had led for 12 years is the victim of a "witch hunt" designed to weed out clergy critical of the church, a parishioner said on Monday.

The Rev. Walter Cuenin was asked to step down as pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton for financial improprieties, including accepting a stipend in excess of archdiocesan policies from the parish, for driving a car leased by the parish, and for accepting compensation from the parish and archdiocese during a sabbatical, all in violation of archdiocesan rules and Canon law, the archdiocese said in a release.

The archdiocese has asked Cuenin to reimburse the parish between $75,000 and $85,000, which he indicated in a statement he intends to do.

Cuenin will likely be reassigned, archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said and the Rev. Christopher Coyne has been named the new pastor of Our Lady.

Members of Our Lady's finance council said they approved the expenditures and were unaware they were in violation of church rules. They also said the archdiocese has audited the church's finances several times -- but not in the past four years -- and never before objected to the stipend or car lease.

"Rev. Cuenin's resignation was requested in accordance with archdiocesan policy, which is consistently applied throughout the archdiocese," church officials said in a statement.

The rules about stipends and expense reimbursements are regularly updated and circulated to all clergy, the archdiocese said.

But while the archdiocese said Cuenin was asked to step down because of financial reasons, some parishioners think there was an ulterior motive.

Cuenin was an outspoken critic of former Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law's handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

In 2002, Cuenin was one of 58 Boston-area priests who signed a letter calling for Law's resignation. Cuenin also has publicly criticized policies restricting the roles of women and homosexuals in the church.

Our Lady provides space for a monthly faith-sharing group for gay and lesbian Christians and Cuenin also allowed the parish's Voice of the Faithful chapter to meet on church property. Voice of the Faithful, a lay group founded in response to the clergy abuse crisis, has often been at odds with church hierarchy and banned from meeting at some parishes.

"We believe that Father Cuenin's forced resignation as pastor is part of a systematic purge on the part of the Archdiocese of priests of integrity, which is being carried out without any consultation with the lay faithful and with complete disregard for their needs and wishes," said Margaret Roylance, an Our Lady parishioner and a member of Voice of the Faithful. "It has all the earmarks of a witch hunt and must be stopped."

The church's previous pastor had received similar benefits without objection from the archdiocese, and Cuenin was removed without being given a chance to rectify the situation, she said.

Roylance called for Cuenin's reinstatement.

Two other priests who signed the letter critical of Law have not been reassigned since their parishes were closed, said John Moynihan, spokesman for Voice of the Faithful. "They're systematically targeting anyone who signed the letter calling for the resignation of Cardinal Law," he said.

Parishioners planned to hold an all-night prayer vigil on Monday night into Tuesday morning to protest Cuenin's ouster. An estimated 400 people attended the start of the vigil, including Newton Mayor David Cohen, Roylance said. Cuenin did not attend.

Coyne, currently an instructor at the archdiocese's seminary and a former spokesman for Law and current Archbishop Sean O'Malley, is seen as a loyalist to archdiocesan leadership.

"Father Coyne is a wonderful priest and his appointment is a sign that the archbishop clearly did not want to have a vacuum in leadership there," Donilon said.

Our Lady was dedicated in 1881 and currently serves 2,900 households. In 2001, Our Lady was named one of the top eight parishes in the United States in the book "Excellent Catholic Parishes."


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