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Spotlight Report

Priest who spoke against Law resigns

Bishop previously cited audit concerns

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/15/2003


Monsignor Michael F. Groden was drawing two salaries, according to church officials. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Brett)
Monsignor Michael F. Groden, a leading figure in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for more than three decades, has resigned under pressure from his posts as head of a key archdiocesan office and as pastor of a thriving urban parish.

According to parishioners and church officials, Bishop Richard G. Lennon accused Groden, 63, of financial impropriety because for several years the priest was drawing two salaries, one for his oversight of the church agency that builds affordable housing and another for his oversight of St. Cecilia Church in the Back Bay. The combined salaries totaled less than $40,000 a year, church officials said.

Groden's parishioners, among them a number of Boston movers and shakers, are irate. Some believe Groden has been targeted because he was the only monsignor among the 58 priests who publicly called for Law's resignation last December. Groden has told a supporter that he does not believe he is being punished for signing. Others believe church officials were uncomfortable with Groden's success as a developer of affordable housing who enjoyed independence from chancery control.

Archdiocesan officials had little to say yesterday, but there has been disenchantment with Groden among some chancery officials for years, and that disenchantment intensified in 1999, when the archdiocese decided to spend $2.7 million to settle and pay legal fees associated with a lawsuit brought by developer Norman A. Levenson. A Suffolk Superior Court judge had ruled in 1998 that Groden had cheated Levenson in a real estate deal. Groden, who the judge found engaged in unfair, immoral, unethical and unscrupulous acts, called the ruling bizarre and unfair and opposed settling the case, which he had wanted to appeal.

Lennon's spokesman, Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, yesterday declined to discuss the reasons for Groden's departure.

''Having served for many years as Director of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs and pastor of St. Cecilia, Monsignor Groden has offered his resignation from both positions and it has been accepted by Bishop Lennon,'' Coyne said. ''Monsignor Groden will be going on sabbatical for the next few months.''

Coyne denied that Groden's resignation was tied to his call for Law's resignation. A parishioner close to Groden said the monsignor also does not believe there is a link.

According to three parishioners who met with Lennon on April 7, the bishop, who has been trying to bring some order to the archdiocese's chaotic financial situation, was unhappy with audits of the planning office and St. Cecilia's. Lennon declined to discuss all of his concerns with the parishioners, but told them he was concerned that Groden was being paid two salaries, which he said was a violation of canon law, and was concerned about the overpayment of Social Security deductions to the IRS, which he said was financial mismanagement.

But the chairman of the parish finance council, J. Ralph Cole, who met with Lennon, said he has reviewed the questions Lennon has raised about Groden, and does not believe they are cause for serious concern. He said Groden took no salary from the parish for a decade, and that the salary he received after 1999 was being paid to make up what he wasn't paid in earlier years.

Cole acknowledged that both the parish and the archdiocese were deducting FICA tax payments from Groden's salary, and that, as a result, the church overpaid $4,500 to the IRS.

''This issue of FICA was the only issue to emerge and one which the parish considers minimal, technical, and capable of immediate correction,'' said Cole, president of Kensington Investment Company, a real estate development group. ''It is by no means sufficient reason to remove a beloved pastor and spiritual leader.''

The vice chairman of the St. Cecilia's parish council, Mark H. Lippolt, who holds the top lay position at the church, said Groden retains the support of the parish. Lippolt, who also was among the group that met with Lennon, said ''we are aware of the issues the archdiocese has raised, and we see things differently.''

''Parishioners are devastated,'' said Lippolt, who is a regional vice president of Coldwell Banker.

Groden's supporters say he led archdiocesan efforts to build hundreds of units of affordable housing and has revitalized a dying parish. Groden had headed the planning office for 35 years, and the parish for 14. Parishioners said Groden was planning to retire from the planning office later this year, but that Lennon insisted he resign from both offices now.

Many parishioners are angry at Lennon and church officials.

''I'm disappointed that they don't appear to have taken any of us into account, or the life of the parish,'' said Boston City Clerk Rosaria Salerno, a longtime parishioner at St. Cecilia's who called Groden ''a miracle worker'' and said ''when Mike came to St. Cecilia's, it was a shell, and he turned the whole thing around.''

''It's scandalous, when there are so many difficulties happening, that this should happen now, and to us,'' Salerno said. ''I would plead with them to reconsider.''

Thomas P. O'Neill III, a former lieutenant governor and longtime parishioner at St. Cecilia who met with Lennon and asked him to allow Groden to retire quietly later in the year, was also upset.

''If we have a church that can excuse and move child molesters from one parish to another, tell me how in heaven's name we ask somebody like Michael Groden to be banished?'' O'Neill said. ''There is a crying need for affordable housing in this area, and nobody has done it longer or better than Michael Groden, and for that alone he ought to be celebrated. He is the epitome of what a priest and a priest's mission ought to be.''

O'Neill also believes that Groden's decision to sign the letter calling for Law's ouster was a factor. ''I don't think it was about him signing the letter, but I do think that was the final straw.''

Groden, who did not return calls from the Globe, this week sent a letter to parishioners announcing that he is retiring from the planning office on June 2 and from the parish June 30.

''While recent months in this archdiocese have been filled with scandal, betrayals, incompetence, and heartache, we can be grateful that our parish continues to grow and flourish,'' he said. ''It is my hope that my moving on will not be the occasion for sadness or regret, but rather the Lent that leads to a new Easter where, with new leadership soon to come to Boston, the light of Christ will surely shine.''

But parishioners are not so sanguine.

''After the pain of last year, the hierarchy is tearing out the heart of our parish, without any consideration for parishioners or an ounce of sensitivity, regret, or shame,'' said Micho Spring, the chairwoman of the US corporate practice for Weber Shandwick, a public relations agency.

''Monsignor Groden is the single most effective church leader I have met in my lifetime, and his turnaround of St. Cecilia's is a model of how to build Christian community which should be praised,'' she said. ''I absolutely do not think there was anything inappropriate about his behavior.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/15/2003.
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