New Leader Named for Greenwich's St. Michael

By Neil Vigdor
The Advocate
February 17, 2007,0,5574229.story?coll=stam-news-local-headlines

Greenwich - Shaken by a financial scandal that took down its pastor, St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church is getting a new leader, albeit a familiar face.

Monsignor J. Peter Cullen, the church's temporary administrator for the past three weeks, will celebrate his first Mass at 5 p.m. today as the permanent pastor of the North Street parish and St. Timothy Chapel. He also will take over as president of Greenwich Catholic School next door.

A former Riverside resident and longtime clergyman with ties to New Canaan and Stamford, Cullen assumed the pastoral duties at the church after the resignation of the Rev. Michael Moynihan.

Moynihan stepped down last month after an audit by the Diocese of Bridgeport uncovered more than $500,000 in spending the parish was unable to account for, and two "off-the-books" checking accounts.

Because Moynihan wrote parish checks out to cash or used his credit card to pay for personal items and parish expenses, diocese officials said auditors are looking into how church funds were used. He has not been charged with any crime, but the accounts were uncovered by the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office.

Cullen, 68, the No. 2 official in the diocese who regularly stands in for Bishop William Lori, said he hopes to re-instill a sense of trust at the parish.

"I'm going to tell the people today that they can count on me," Cullen said. "I'm here for them 100 percent."

Cullen's appointment was announced by Lori in a letter that went out Thursday to the estimated 1,600 families that belong to the parish.

"A loving shepherd of souls as well as an experienced pastor and administrator, Monsignor Cullen has devoted his every waking hour to the needs of St. Michael Parish and Greenwich Catholic School during these challenging days," Lori wrote. "He continues to offer wise, steady and caring guidance to a parish family that needs healing and desires to move forward."

Lori will take part in an official installation ceremony at a date to be announced.

A Boston-area native whose family moved to Riverside in 1959, Cullen most recently served as moderator of the curia for the diocese, a chief operating officer role in charge of finances. He will remain a vicar general, one of three in the diocese, standing in for the bishop from at church ceremonies such as installations and confirmations.

Cullen has played a key role in the diocese, from helping with debt retirement and school reorganization to revamping Catholic charities and addressing sexual abuse within the clergy ranks, church leaders said.

"He emerged as the logical choice," diocese spokesman Joseph McAleer said.

Ordained as a priest in 1967, Cullen got his first assignment as an assistant priest at St. Mary Parish in Stamford. Fluent in Spanish after studying in Puerto Rico, he moved to St. Mary Church in Bridgeport, a predominantly Hispanic church where he became pastor in 1974. From 1979 to 1985, he presided as pastor of another multicultural, inner-city parish in Bridgeport - St. Peter Church.

In 1985, Cullen was appointed pastor of New Canaan's St. Aloysius Church. He remained at the parish for 17 years, helping to expand the church and its elementary school.

In accepting his new post in Greenwich, Cullen said he is reconnecting with part of his past. He worked as a groundskeeper for the town's parks department when his family moved to the area. The longtime priest also was able to state the exact mileage - a third of a mile - from his new church to St. Mary's Cemetery, where his parents are buried.

Part of the inner circle of church leaders who had been monitoring St. Michael Church, Cullen said he enters his new job with mixed emotions.

"Father Michael is my friend," Cullen said. "He's always been gracious. It's heartbreaking."

Attempts to reach Moynihan, who still gets his messages through the parish, were unsuccessful.

Despite Moynihan's resignation, Cullen said the church's pastor of 14 years was still a "priest in good standing."

"I ask (parishioners) not to jump to conclusions," Cullen said.

Cullen said he will strive for complete transparency in the handling of the parish's finances, from how money is collected and deposited to record-keeping. He said the parish will use one bank account.

"We will put into effect financial procedures and controls that the diocese recommends all parishes do," Cullen said.


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