Shake-Up at St. Michael Pastor Moynihan Resigns Amid Financial Questions

By Hoa Nguyen
Greenwich Times
January 21, 2007,0,5889228.story?

The pastor of St. Michael Church resigned after a preliminary financial audit uncovered more than $500,000 in spending that the Archdiocese of Bridgeport is still trying to account for, officials announced yesterday.

Bishop William Lori told St. Michael's parishioners yesterday that he asked for and received the resignation of their pastor, the Rev. Michael Moynihan. Though the 54-year-old remains a "priest in good standing," Moynihan will likely never be the pastor of a diocese church again, Lori said.

"After a long and thorough process, I have reluctantly but firmly concluded that any new assignment cannot entail financial administration," Lori said. "To put it mildly, parish financial records were badly tangled and at points not yet well explained, intertwined with Father Michael's personal finances."

Moynihan is accused of keeping at least two "off-the-books" bank accounts, which only he knew about and had control of, Lori said. About $1.4 million in transactions passed through one account -- half a million of which auditors cannot account for because checks were used to pay for some of Moynihan's personal credit cards, various vendors and in some cases made out to cash. The diocese said that though the money may have been used for parish purposes, Moynihan had difficulty providing documentation proving that.

Parishioners at yesterday's Masses received a document detailing the preliminary audit results and Moynihan's resignation letter. In his letter, Moynihan said the audit "will illustrate my deficiencies as a financial administrator."

"I believe at the end of this process that there will be no findings of impropriety or wrongdoing on my part as your pastor," he said in the letter. "If the final report should indicate unresolved or questionable expenditures, I will, to the extent that I can, make an appropriate financial contribution back to the parish I love so much."

St. Michael's parishioners have traditionally been among the most generous donors in the diocese. In last year's annual bishop's appeal -- a fundraising campaign to which every parish in the diocese must contribute -- St. Michael's pledged $1.4 million in donations, the highest of any parish and about 730 percent more than what the diocese expected.

Its nearest competitor was St. Thomas More in Darien, which pledged $934,000. That parish also has undergone an audit and found no financial improprities, officials said.

Until a new pastor is appointed to St. Michael, J. Peter Cullen, the diocese's vicar general, will serve in that role, officials said.

Lori, who had been scheduled to preside over a Mass to install the new pastor at St. Agnes Church on Stanwich Road, instead addressed parishioners at St. Michael Church on North Street and its affiliate, St. Timothy Chapel in Banksville.

In an interview, Lori said questionable accounting practices were first raised with Moynihan during an internal review of St. Michael's books in 2004. Moynihan was told to implement some changes, including hiring a parish accountant and never making checks out to cash.

Lori, who said he had believed Moynihan was making those changes, had intended to follow up by conducting a more comprehensive review of every parish's finances as part of a larger initiative to improve financial accountability in the diocese, but then other matters arose that took away part of his attention, including settling sexual abuse lawsuits.

"Between schools and parishes and other entities, I have 130 entities," Lori said. "I was vigilant. I had assurances that things were going well, that recommendations were being followed. The financials showed even, steady performance."

But then, last year a scandal broke involving the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, former pastor of St. John Roman Catholic Church in Darien. Fay allegedly spent $1.4 million in parish funds over six years, some of it to buy gifts for a man who was allegedly his lover. That discovery prompted diocese officials to respond by setting up a system of external audits and other financial controls that they had intended to institute sometime in the future, but because of the Darien scandal, now had to set up sooner than expected. They initially targeted seven churches, including St. Michael.

"I expected this to be routine," Lori said, adding that it was during that review last summer that officials uncovered the first unauthorized bank account.

Lori recounted much of the same story to parishioners yesterday, saying that in August, the diocese found out about the existence of the first bank account and stripped Moynihan of his authority to write checks or manage finances at the parish. Still, Moynihan remained a pastor and assisted accountants in tracking down documents proving that the money was spent for the purpose of the parish, Lori said.

"I wanted to give him every opportunity to provide the documents and explanations," Lori said. "He did provide additional information, documents, explanations and the gap of unexplained expenditures narrowed, somewhat. As that happened, I held out the hope that this nightmare might possibly have a happy ending, but that was not to be."

In December, the diocese discovered a second unauthorized bank account that Moynihan had never mentioned, Lori said.

"This second sad discovery led me to the inescapable conclusion that despite all his talents, priestly generosity, Father Michael was unable or unwilling to lead the parish to a new day of financial accountability and transparency and it is the role of the pastor to provide just that kind of leadership."

Several parishioners were in tears as they sat and listened to Lori, though many were critical of the decision to ask for Moynihan's resignation. One man even stood up after Lori spoke to give his own opinion, drawing thunderous applause from other parishioners.

"I cannot help but believe that when the words you use -- 'inappropriate' -- did not speak of illegal, did not speak of immoral -- that somehow the terrible experience the diocese has seen in Darien is a large part for what looks like an overreaction here," the man said. "Frankly there's not a lot of Christianity in the behavior and it doesn't seem right and it doesn't seem appropriate," he said of Moynihan's resignation.

Moynihan was ordained by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and appointed pastor of St. Michael in 1993. He is a favorite among parishioners and the reason why Masses at the church are packed, several members said last night.

"It's all because of him," said Eileen Rooney, 41, of Greenwich, who was among parishioners who said they did not believe Moynihan did the things Lori said. "I know he wouldn't do it. He's too smart."

Sue Stone, who sits on the board of the Greenwich Catholic School where Moynihan served as president, said: "Father Michael is the most honorable man, priest, I've ever worked with."

Stone said she did not know about any hidden accounts Moynihan may have had, but that she knew there were parishioners who wanted to donate to the church's needs but didn't want that money to go to the diocese, out of fear it would be used to settle sexual abuse lawsuits.

"People had given money to Father Michael and asked that the funds not be passed to the diocese," she said.

Several other parishioners left the church crying and upset, saying the diocese had mistreated Moynihan. Among them were Greenwich Selectwoman Penny Monahan

"He was so kind to everyone here," she said. "I'm heartbroken."

The last time a Greenwich Catholic priest was accused of questionable spending was the former Rev. Charles Stubbs, a past pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greenwich who stepped down from that church in 1996. Then-Bishop Edward Egan, who went on to become cardinal of New York, assigned Stubbs to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown. Stubbs' tenure there was short, though. In 1997, Stubbs was accused of sexual abuse dating to the 1980s and was removed from his post and forever stripped of his priestly duties. The diocese settled the sexual abuse lawsuits against Stubbs and other priests from the prior decade in 2002.

That case is different from Moynihan because there are no allegations of sexual abuse, diocese officials said. The diocese did receive anonymous tips accusing Moynihan of an improper relationship with an adult, but after interviewing several people, including the former pastor, officials said it was not possible to verify that claim.

"Everyone has a right to their good name," Lori said.

Diocese officials also said that through their attorney, they have been contacted by the U.S. Attorney's office about Moynihan's case and have agreed to forward the final audit report.

Moynihan could not be reached for comment yesterday.


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