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Spotlight Report

Audit noted monsignor's expense excesses

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 5/17/2003

Monsignor Michael F. Groden (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Brett)

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An Archdiocese of Boston audit of the church office that develops housing for the needy discovered that Monsignor Michael F. Groden, the office's longtime director, had billed at least $20,000 in personal expenses over three years to a credit card issued by the office, according to several church officials familiar with the audit findings.

Groden reimbursed the archdiocese for the expenses late last year.

The audit finding and Groden's repayment were not disclosed earlier this week when it became known that Groden had been forced to resign from the Planning Office for Urban Affairs and as pastor of St. Cecilia's in Boston's Back Bay, where Groden was found to be accepting a second salary in violation of church rules.

Groden's removal by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the archdiocese's interim administrator, has provoked a firestorm among Groden's many influential friends and by parishioners at a parish that has flourished since he took it over in 1989.

In interviews yesterday, people familiar with the audits said Lennon decided, for Groden's sake and the reputation of the Planning Office, to keep secret the expense account excesses.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for Lennon, said that he could not discuss the audit of the Planning Office.

In a brief interview, Rudolph F. Pierce, a lawyer who has represented Groden and the church housing office, said the amount that Groden reimbursed the archdiocese was less than $25,000.

Pierce said he could not immediately locate his records of the audit. However, church officials said the improper expenses included thousands of dollars for meals at expensive restaurants, some unspecified travel, cases of wine, and health club dues.

Groden has declined requests for an interview. David Nyhan, a columnist for the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence and a close friend of Groden's who was speaking on the priest's behalf, said yesterday that the expenses were a justifiable part of Groden's job. The Planning Office developed about 2,000 units of housing for people in need during the 35 years Groden ran it.

The recent disclosures, Nyhan asserted, ''are designed to make Mike Groden look bad.'' Nyhan, who is a former Globe columnist, also said he believes that Groden's removal was engineered as a retaliatory move by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who Nyhan said had long resented Groden's success.

But in interviews yesterday, church officials and laypeople familiar with the situation said that for years the cardinal, who resigned in December, resisted efforts by others to have Groden removed. Law did not authorize the audits until after a court ruled in 1999 that Groden had cheated another developer in a real estate deal, according to the officials, who spoke on condition that they not be identified.

The archdiocese paid $2 million to settle that case, as well as $700,000 in legal fees.

Whatever the reasons behind the 63-year-old Groden's departure, church officials and Groden's friends yesterday expressed fears that the disclosures might harm an office that is competing for scarce funding during an economic downturn. Some of the officials also said public knowledge of Groden's expenses might prompt a review by the office of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who oversees the conduct of public charities.

At St. Cecilia's, Groden transformed a dying parish with barely 50 churchgoers into one of the city's most vibrant churches, where about 600 people attend weekend Mass. ''This parish is totally and passionately behind Monsignor Groden,'' J. Ralph Cole, chairman of the parish finance council, said yesterday.

According to church officials, St. Cecilia's was the second stop for archdiocesan auditors last year. At the Planning Office, the auditors looked at three years of expenses, and discovered an excessive amount of undocumented credit card expenses. The amount that Groden repaid was for expenses that he agreed were personal, according to officials familiar with the finding.

It was not clear yesterday whether the board of the Planning Office, most of them lay members, was aware of or approved Groden's expense accounts. One of the board members, who asked that he not be identified, said he did not recall any scrutiny of Groden's spending. But the board member said he recalls the board approving reimbursement for the annual operating costs of Groden's car.

According to Cole, the parish decided in 1999, after a decade in which Groden brought the parish from the edge of insolvency to fiscal solidity, to begin paying him a modest salary of about $16,000 a year. Cole said he knew of no prohibition against such a decision.

But church officials said yesterday that Groden knew it was improper to accept a salary in addition to his Planning Office pay. Coyne, while declining comment on the Groden case, said that the church's rules on pay are clear to all of its priests. Whether they have one, two, or even three assignments from the archdiocese, they are entitled to collect only one salary, Coyne said. Depending on their years of service, salaries for priests are generally between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, Coyne said.

According to the officials, Lennon felt that the financial misconduct in both posts left him no choice but to remove Groden from the parish as well. ''When Bishop Lennon called Mike Groden and dismissed him, there was not a word of thanks,'' said Nyhan. ''This is vicious small-mindedness from the team that took over from Law. . . . This is the bony hand of Cardinal Law reaching from beyond the grave to take down a political antagonist.''

Friends of Groden, in their comments yesterday, said they believe that, even if the expenses were unwarranted, the issue is minor in light of the enormous good Groden has done for so many people.

Indeed, on May 30, many of Boston's most influential Catholics are planning on attending a $1,000-per-couple fund-raiser for the Planning Office at which Groden will be honored for his years of service.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/17/2003.
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