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Ousted pastor urges focus on saving social programs

In Back Bay parish, anger at archdiocese

By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff, 5/19/2003

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

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A Back Bay priest who was pulled from his pulpit last week told his parishioners yesterday that despite their swelling resentment toward the bishop who dismissed him for alleged financial improprieties, they should cooperate with church leaders to protect the social programs their parish has worked so hard to create.

In an emotional farewell homily, the Rev. Michael F. Groden urged his flock ''to work in a most constructive way with the archdiocesan bishop,'' Richard G. Lennon, who forced him out.

Groden, who is credited with reviving St. Cecelia's Parish and effectively leading the diocese office that develops housing for the needy, was forced to resign after it came to light that he had been receiving two salaries and had charged about $20,000 in personal expenses to the housing office. But a dozen churchgoers in one of the city's wealthiest parishes yesterday said they believe the firing was politically motivated.

''When you're developing affordable housing in Boston, you have to be persistent, and if you're really going to accomplish something, you have to step on a few toes,'' said Jackie O'Neill, a parishioner for 15 years and the wife of former lieutenant governor Thomas P. O'Neill III. ''You're going to have a few enemies around town, and probably that's been the case with Michael.''

After lauding their priest of 14 years with a standing ovation, parishioners dissected Lennon's motives, Cardinal Bernard Law's influence in the move, and politics within the church hierarchy. Groden's offense - and not all the parishioners believe he committed any - hardly rise to the level of resignation, several said.

Others pointed to Groden's outspoken stance against Law during the height of the church sexual abuse scandal. Groden was the only monsignor among 58 priests to publicly call for Law's resignation last December.

''I think everybody here assumes this was a vindictive action from a vindictive group,'' said Carl Gilmore, a parishioner for six years. ''This man is a remarkable leader, and he was just dismissed out of hand.''

Mark Lippolt, the vice chair of the parish pastoral council, said he did not expect rallies supporting Groden or denigrating Lennon, because Groden asked parishioners to focus their energies toward the social causes he championed. But Lippolt said the anger among parishioners is palpable.

''There's a real disconnect between Brighton and the parishes,'' he said. ''Whatever his offenses, everyone considers them inconsequential, things that could be remediated. There are those things that are permanently damaging and those things that can be fixed. This could have been fixed.''

Groden, 63, was in the second year of his third, six-year term at St. Cecelia's, Lippolt said. He had expected to finish this term. Instead, he will take a three-month sabbatical and hopes to continue his work in the housing field.

Groden, who hugged dozens of the more than 300 parishioners at his 10 a.m. Mass as they left, had no comment.

A spokesman for the archdiocese did not return calls yesterday, but last week church officials and laypeople familiar with Groden's standing in the church said that for years Law, who resigned in December, resisted efforts by others to have Groden removed.

The audits that found discrepancies in the books that led to Groden's ouster were not authorized by Law until after a court ruled in 1999 that Groden had cheated a developer in a real estate deal. The archdiocese paid $2 million to settle that case, as well as $700,000 in legal fees.

Groden reimbursed the archdiocese approximately $20,000 in personal expenses that he had billed to a credit card issued by the Planning Office for Urban Affairs.

But yesterday the intricacies of Groden's financial records were of secondary interest.

''The bishop's made a huge mistake,'' said parishioner Paul Heimlicher. ''But I guess he's putting his political agenda before the church.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/19/2003.
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