Six years ago, within months after the Rev. Bernard R. Kelly took the helm of St. Joseph's Church in Woods Hole, some parishioners became concerned about his stewardship of their close-knit parish. One was worried enough to write to Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, then head of the Fall River Diocese and now leader of the Archdiocese of Boston, raising concerns about parish finances and expenditures as well as what the parishioner called the pastor's odd, distant behavior.
"It would be cruel and cowardly to allow Father Kelly to run a functioning parish into a financial and spiritual morass," wrote Mary Pat MacKenzie, a eucharistic minister who had attended St. Joseph's for 12 years.
But no church inquiry was launched until last month, when Kelly and St. Joseph's were swept into a murder investigation. Churchgoers were shocked to learn that their priest had socialized with Paul Nolin, 39, a convicted child rapist indicted in the Sept. 20 murder of Jonathan Wessner. They were stunned when Kelly, according to a law enforcement source, admitted to investigators that he had a sexual relationship with Nolin.
Some, though, were less surprised when the priest admitted last week that he misappropriated $50,000 from the parish. Lawyers for Bishop George W. Coleman, the new head of the diocese, said in court papers that as much as $150,000 may be missing.
Now some parishioners are wondering whether an earlier, more aggressive look at parish operations might have prevented the crisis that has gripped the parish since September. "I find it absolutely appalling that Coleman did nothing about this" earlier, said Jan Kelley, who teaches religious education classes at the church.
Coleman, who was O'Malley's deputy in 1997, responded to MacKenzie's letter on O'Malley's behalf, writing: "Bishop O'Malley assures you that he has noted carefully the concerns you brought to his attention."
At an emotional meeting Oct. 9, parishioners finally prodded Coleman to investigate the parish finances, said people who attended the gathering. Coleman told parishioners he knew nothing of financial problems at St. Joseph's, according to people who were present.
One parishioner, Carol Wagner, said she challenged Coleman, reminding him of MacKenzie's letter. "You were given information when he came, and your response was you'd look into it," Wagner said.
Church officials said the issues raised six years ago by parishioners would not have immediately signaled wrongdoing and that while parish priests must file monthly financial reports, the details of how they collect and handle church funds are largely up to them.
The Fall River Diocese receives many letters about pastors, "some pro, some con," said spokesman John Kearns. If all such pastors were investigated, "we'd never accomplish anything," he said, adding that Coleman has no recollection of MacKenzie's letter.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston referred all questions about the case to the Fall River Diocese.
In her letter to O'Malley, MacKenzie pointed out that Sunday collections had dropped, and she questioned why Kelly had requested town permits to build a three-car garage and a deck. "It seems to me that the capital costs of these two unnecessary ventures will put the church in a precarious financial position if collection revenues are below normal," wrote MacKenzie, who now lives in Glen Garden, N.J.
Several months later, she learned from town officials that the building permit requests had been withdrawn.
A drop in Sunday collections with a new pastor would not immediately signal misappropriation, Kearns said.
"If there's some great fluctuation it would send a flag up," he said. "But parish finances do fluctuate at places. A pastor may go over better than another; that is often reflected in income."
And the church hierarchy takes a hands-off approach to the finances of individual parishes. Parishes are required to have parish councils and finance committees made up of laypeople and to file monthly financial reports, but priests can decide how to manage Sunday collections and parish bank accounts.
"Pastors do have to take charge for the administration of their parish, spiritually and temporally," Kearns said.
However, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, whose office is investigating the alleged theft, said the case may point to a need for more oversight of parish priests by the church hierarchy. "If the church wishes to be as autocratic as it apparently wants to be, then they ought to be exercising perhaps a little more vigilance over a great many things," he said.
In a telephone interview from the Cardinal Medeiros Residence for retired priests in Fall River, the Rev. William Norton, Kelly's predecessor, said he regularly opened the church books to parishioners and published the weekly totals in the church bulletin, about $1,800 a week, spiking to $3,000 during the summer.
But when Kelly arrived, that practice was stopped, according to MacKenzie, Kelley, and Wagner. They said Kelly also turned down the services of a church member who worked at a bank and had long helped Norton keep the parish's financial records, saying he preferred to do it himself.
Kelly, through his lawyer, Francis O'Boy, has apologized and said he plans to pay back the funds. Kelly lives on a $1 million horse farm in Cummaquid.
Parishioners said they also wondered whether an audit of the parish or a closer look at what MacKenzie's letter termed odd behavior by Kelly might have raised red flags about Nolin. His lawyer says he was a church handyman, but parishioners say they rarely saw Nolin around the church. Authorities brought Kelly before a grand jury twice this month to ask what Nolin told him after the slaying of Wessner, 20, who was last seen leaving a party with Nolin to watch the sun rise from the church bell tower.
And parishioners were disturbed by another Kelly connection that surfaced last week when the priest's brother sued him over a will drafted in August, in which Kelly bequeathed an estate in Otis, Mass., and much of his remaining property to Nolin.
But parishioners say they are not surprised that nothing was done, years before the Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal made priests more subject to scrutiny. And they concede that they, too, acted gingerly with their concerns. Like any pastor, Kelly had his supporters and detractors within the parish. MacKenzie said her letter made no direct accusations because she was reluctant to raise more pointed questions about a priest without proof.
Instead, her letter focused on spiritual concerns, as well as financial ones. She complained that Kelly was "cold and distant," read mail-order sermons, sat behind the altar where it was hard to see him, and failed to mention Mother Teresa at Mass the week she died, instead asking the congregation to sing "Happy Birthday" to a visiting tourist.
"In my 46 years of Catholic life I have never felt such anger in Church," she wrote, saying she expressed her shock to him in front of the congregation. "He merely proceeded to sing his little song."
The worries continued through this past summer. Kelly would often take up a second collection after the regular Sunday donations, saying more money was needed for projects such as missions in Africa or renovating the bell tower, Kelley said.
"People started saying, `I'm not giving money for the second collection, because you're not telling us where the first collection is going,' " she said.
Anne Barnard can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.