Counseling Program for Catholic Clergy Faces Uncertain Future

By Jeanne Pugh
St. Petersburg Times
September 26, 1987

Clearwater - The House of Affirmation was established in Clearwater three and a half years ago to provide psychological counseling for Catholic priests, nuns and religious brothers suffering from problems related to stress, burnout, depression and other emotional maladies.

Today the private, non-profit facility is foundering in a sea of problems that are not of its own making but the result of a scandal that has rocked the foundations of the entire chain of Massachusetts-based counseling centers known collectively as the House of Affirmation.

[Photo captions: 1) Entrance of the House of Affirmation in Clearwater; 2) the 16-unit apartment complex at the House of Affirmation in Clearwater; 3) the Rev. Gerald Fath.]

Spokesmen for the bishop's office in Worchester, Mass., acknowledged this week that an investigation has been under way for nearly a year into charges that the Rev. Thomas A. Kane, a Catholic priest and co-founder of the chain, used House of Affirmation finances to support personal real estate investments in Massachusetts, Maine and Florida, paid salaries from House of Affirmation funds to persons employed in his personal business enterprises and misrepresented his academic credentials. They said that suggestions that the other co-founder, Sister Anna Polcino, was wholly involved in the deceptions appear to be unfounded. But both Father Kane, 46, and Sister Polcino, in her mid-60s, are said to be the subjects of scrutiny by the Massachusetts state attorney general's office as a result of a 10-page complaint filed by 11 former professional associates of the House of Affirmation - individuals who acted as directors, administrators or counselors at the organization's various residential and outpatient centers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Missouri, California and Florida. Among their allegations is that Kane did not earn a doctorate in psychology from the University of Birmingham, England, as he has claimed.

The repercussions have shaken the office of Bishop Timothy J. Harrington of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, who has been a member of the House of Affirmation board of directors since its founding in the early 1970s. He became president of the organization late last year after Kane was dismissed from his post and Sister Polcino went into retirement as "chairman emeritus."

The Worcester diocese's interests in the organization go much deeper than those of the other dioceses in which its centers are located. According to Sister Polcino, contacted by telephone at her present home in Seaside, N.J., the Worcester diocese subsidized the original counseling center in Worcester and helped to establish the first residential center in nearby Whitinsville.

Centers established later in other parts of the country have been independently financed, both by donations and by fees paid by dioceses and religious orders to cover the costs of psychotherapy for clergy and religious referred for care.

The Clearwater facility, Sister Polcino said, was established after a group of lay people who had heard of the work of the House of Affirmation petitioned Bishop W. Thomas Larkin of the Diocese of St. Petersburg to invite the organization to bring its services to the area. The organization, although endorsed by the diocese for its professional services, remained a private corporation with no direct financial ties to the diocese.

A message seeking comment from Kather Kane was left on his answering machine in Boston, but he did not return the call.

Sandy Tobin of Clearwater, who worked as the development director for the local facility for nearly two years, said this week that about $600,000 in cash and pledges was raised from local congregations, individuals and businesses during her tenure.

The Clearwater facility originally was located in the former rectory of St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church on S Belcher Road. It later moved to its present quarters, a complex of three adjoining buildings including a 16-unit apartment building near the corner of Pierce and Park streets.

The complex, once filled to capacity with resident clients and a constant flow of outpatients, is now nearly empty. The Rev. Gerald Fath, the priest and clinical psychologist who had served as director since 1984, resigned in June and is now living in Washington, D.C., where he is supervising a course in death and dying for seminarians under the auspices of Catholic University and taking courses in theology. The skeleton staff at the center - the Rev. John Walsh, psychologist Jane Bueck and a secretary - are serving only a small number of outpatients. The local advisory board and board of directors, all volunteers, have disbanded.

The enterprise has suffered similarly across the country. Centers in Montara, Calif., Middletown, Conn., and Natick, Mass., have been closed. Facilities in Whitinsville and Hopedale, Mass., and Webster Groves, Mo., are operating with reduced staff and clients. Staff members and directors, some of whom say they were fired without cause and without severance pay, are threatening to sue - although some have reached settlements with a new team of management consultants hired by Bishop Harrington and the reorganized board of directors.

Mrs. Tobin said she took a medical leave of absence from her job as development director for the Clearwater center about a year ago, before the revelations of mismanagement began to surface. She acknowledged, however, that her departure was related in part to distress caused by what she thought was a careless attitude toward finances on the part of the national office.

"If I had had any inkling that there were real improprieties - rather than just carelessness - I would have left before I did," she said. "But I did not learn until later that I was not the only one raising questions."

In recent weeks, Bishop Harrington has been fielding charges that the new board of directors is "foot-dragging" on its promise to make public a full report on the House of Affirmation's financial condition and the charges against Father Kane. But Samuel R. De Simone, a Worcester lawyer hired last May by the board, said this week that he expects to "have something ready by mid-October."

De Simone attributed the long delay to the complexity of the House of Affirmation organization and the fluid nature of events still transpiring in the wake of the departures of Father Kane and Sister Polcino.

"Many of the things that we were concerned about in the beginning are being resolved," he said. "Some of the people who had resigned have come back to us and are working again. We have worked out severance agreements with some who were fired, and we have a couple more pending."

As for what happened to money donated to the organization and apparently not accounted for, De Simone said he could not comment "at this point in time" on where the money went. But he added that the House of Affirmation, as a private corporation, is solvent and that any funds found to be missing are expected to be recovered. "If we cannot recover what I think is due, civil action will be brought," he said.

De Simone noted that there is no indication of any impropriety in the operation of the Clearwater facility.

In fact, Edward D. Geary, an officer of the management company hired to take over operation of the organization last April, said he hopes that the Clearwater facility can be either revitalized as a resident center or become the nucleus for a group of outpatient centers throughout the state of Florida.

Geary said that he and his business associate, Thomas F. Siegel Jr., plan to accompany Bishop Harrington to a meeting in West Palm Beach next week where they will present such a proposal to the Catholic bishops of Florida.

Meanwhile, people who are familiar with the Clearwater center's work seem to be in a state of mourning.

"The tragedy of all this," said Mrs. Tobin, "is that their work was excellent. So many people were helped. I saw priests and nuns come into the place with bodies physically bent over from stress - and then I saw them a few months later, walking upright, smiling and happy."

Jim David of Clearwater, who served on the local board of directors, echoed her feelings. "It was really a loss when the facility closed because it filled such a need," he said. "There's been a hurt in this for all of us. I hope that they can reorganize and keep it open."

But Father Fath, who headed the local center from its start, says he does not think he wants to return. "I was very sorry to have to leave because it was such a valuable ministry," he said in a telephone call to Washington, D.C. this week. "And I would like to go back to working in psychotherapy but not with the House of Affirmation."

The hurt, he said, has been too deep. "But I wouldn't want anyone to think that I am undervaluing the work we did there," he hastily explained. "We did a tremendous amount of good work for the priests, brothers and sisters who came to us. The only problem is that it all seems to be overshadowed by this mess."


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