School Files Complaint against Diocese

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent
February 12, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE — One of the Diocese of Gallup’s own mission schools has filed a complaint against it in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

On Jan. 30, Albuquerque attorney Charles R. Hughson, legal counsel for St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School, filed a complaint concerning a dispute over real estate property in Thoreau.

According to the Gallup Diocese, St. Bonaventure is one of its 10 diocesan Catholic schools. St. Michael Indian School is classified as a private Catholic school in the diocese.

In the Complaint to Quiet Title, Hughson argues that property Bishop James S. Wall claimed as belonging to the diocese actually belongs to St. Bonaventure. Hughson also claims a former chief executive of St. Bonaventure Mission transferred property to the diocese without authorization. Included with the complaint are copies of four warranty deeds involving land transactions from 1992 to 2002.

Hughson declined to comment when contacted Friday.

“Because it’s pending litigation, I’m not free to comment on it,” he said.

Warranty deeds

According to the first warranty deed, the Diocese of Gallup transferred eight parcels of land in Thoreau to St. Bonaventure in September 1992. Bishop Donald E. Pelotte signed the warranty deed before Anna J. DiGregorio, one of his longtime chancery staff members and notaries.

The second warranty deed indicates Robert D. O’Connell, then the school’s chief executive, transferred most of those same parcels back to the Gallup Diocese in March 2002. In the complaint, Hughson claims O’Connell wasn’t authorized to transfer the property “since no board resolution to transfer the Deeded Property was made and it was not within the scope of authority conferred on the executive director under St. Bonaventure’s bylaws.”

Hughson claims O’Connell’s warranty deed is invalid and that St. Bonaventure has been paying the taxes and insurance on the property since receiving it from the diocese in 1992. Citing a statute in state law, Hughson argues the Diocese of Gallup “has been barred since at least September, 2002, from challenging St. Bonaventure’s title” to the property.

Two other warranty deeds indicate St. Bonaventure sold two properties to private individuals in the mid-1990s. Barbara Jean Morales, vice-president of the school, signed a warranty deed on Nov. 4, 1994, apparently selling a parcel of land the Gallup Diocese had given the school two years before. Another warranty deed, signed by O’Connell on June 6, 1995, involves a parcel of land that does not appear to be part of the land given by the diocese.

The document signed by Morales possibly violated a provision of the warranty deed signed by Pelotte in 1992 that stated “in the event the above-described property is no longer used as a Catholic Mission and School, said property shall revert to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup.”

Proper protocol

O’Connell, who now lives in Colorado, was contacted for comment Friday. O’Connell disagreed with Hughson’s assertion that he had acted without authorization.

“I wouldn’t have done that unilaterally,” he said.

According to O’Connell, he served as chief executive of St. Bonaventure from 1994 to 2006. During that time, he said, minutes were kept of school board meetings and any decisions regarding property transfers were discussed and approved by the board. O’Connell said the board president was Paul Leche, an attorney from Austin, Texas, who was always concerned with legal correctness.

“Paul Leche was very vigilant about things being done properly,” O’Connell said.

The Rev. Thomas Maikowski, then the director of education for the Gallup Diocese, was very detail oriented and also concerned that proper protocol was followed, O’Connell added.

According to O’Connell, the parcels of land in question had been donated by Phillips Petroleum, and there were a number of discussions between chancery and mission officials about who should own the land and what should be done with the property.

At the time, O’Connell said, there was a “big push” coming down from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for dioceses, not parishes, to own all church property.

“I didn’t push back very hard and neither did the board,” he said.

Uncertain future

O’Connell did remember the 1995 sale of one parcel of land to a private individual and said the land was sold to help pay the taxes on other properties. He also agreed with Hughson’s assertion that it was St. Bonaventure, not the Gallup Diocese, which paid the property taxes on the Thoreau land.

O’Connell also recalled that the future of St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School was very uncertain when he was hired in 1994. The diocese had just removed the Rev. Doug McNeill, the mission’s previous director, after McNeill had been named in a clergy sex abuse lawsuit. According to O’Connell, Pelotte would only allow the mission to erect temporary buildings because if enrollment faltered, the diocese would close the school and sell off the property.

An additional complicating factor, he said, was that St. Bonaventure was not an independent 501(c)(3) organization, but rather used the Diocese of Gallup’s 501(c)(3) status.

“They could take that 501(c)(3) status away from us,” O’Connell said.

The Diocese of Gallup’s bankruptcy attorneys have not yet responded to the St. Bonaventure complaint.

In October 2012, St. Bonaventure made national news after becoming embroiled in a fundraising fiasco with Quadriga Art, a New York direct-marketing company whose business practices were being investigated by the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. A CNN news investigation claimed St. Bonaventure allegedly owed Quadriga Art $5 million after signing a fundraising contract with the company in 2008. CNN reported that debt was forgiven once the news network began investigating St. Bonaventure’s contract with Quadriga Art.

That contract had apparently been signed in violation of the Diocese of Gallup’s published financial policies. In comments to the media, diocesan attorney James “Jay” Mason said officials with the Gallup Diocese were unaware of St. Bonaventure’s predicament until contacted by CNN.



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