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Church in Crisis

Principal reports pastor’s misdeeds; now she’s ousted

New York

A Catholic parochial school principal in New York who accused the parish’s former pastor of physically assaulting her, theft of school funds and sexual harassment was told not to report for work Sept. 3.

After a meeting with Fr. Steve Ferrari, who replaced Fr. John Thompson as pastor at St. Elizabeth’s in Queens, N.Y., Barbara Samide, learned the diocese was placing her on unpaid leave of absence.

During the meeting, she had informed Ferrari that she planned to amend a $5 million lawsuit alleging that Thompson had sexually harassed her and accusing Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily of negligence. The new charges in the suit are physical abuse and sexual assault by Thompson. She said her last words to Ferrari at that meeting were: “I’m remaining here.”

A few hours later, her lawyer received a faxed notice saying that Samide was being put on an unpaid leave of absence immediately and was forbidden to enter school property at any time. The next day Ferrari was seen on the street corner outside the school handing out leaflets about her dismissal.

“Those are my children, and the faculty is my family,” Samide said over the phone. “It has always been my dream to be a Catholic school principal, and this is my reward. Fr. Thompson stole thousands from the school, lived in the rectory with a young male friend and then was simply transferred to another parish with his salary. But I am the one who is being punished.”

The diocese contends that Samide’s removal has come at her own bidding. “She asked for a leave of absence,” said Frank DeRosa, diocesan spokesman, referring to an Aug. 29 letter in which Samide requested either a transfer from the school or a paid leave of absence.

“Technically,” DeRosa continued, “she is still the principal and has a contract until next June. She is still receiving medical benefits but no pay.” He later told the press, “She has not been fired, absolutely not. It’s a response to her request.”

‘She was fired’

“Call it what you will, she was fired,” her lawyer, Michael Dowd, told The New York Times. “Her threat to expose more of what happened to her at St. Elizabeth’s resulted in the victim of these despicable acts being attacked yet again.”

Samide had worked at the school every day during the summer. She said that when she wrote the Aug. 29 letter, she had been thinking that perhaps a change would be best for her health. But as the opening of school approached, she changed her mind.

Thompson was hired at the school two years ago. She said that she had no idea then that her biggest problem would be Thompson, the 50-year-old pastor. Her story has been detailed in recent months in press accounts in several New York newspapers.

According to those accounts and interviews with Samide, she should have been forewarned, in a way, when her predecessor, Sr. Frances Marie Sheridan, left Samide with three words of parting advice: Watch the money. The warning became all too real when, a few days later, the pastor quietly transferred the six parish accounts to another bank with the principal’s name on only one of them. Some time later, he abruptly announced that $40,000 was unaccounted for but, in a bizarre about-face a few days later, calmly told the 39-year-old principal not to worry.

On another occasion, he told her to write out several large checks to “cash,” give them to him and not to ask questions. There were other occasions, Samide said, when he simply took money from her office safe.

She said the pastor would openly admit that much of the money was being spent on a 19-year-old male prostitute go-go dancer he called Jonathan, who lived with him in his rectory suite. Thompson boasted about being Jonathan’s “sugar daddy.” When the pastor ordered the principal to give Jonathan a paying job in the school, she decided it was time to call the diocesan office and report both the unsettling situation with Jonathan and the serious financial problems.

When Thompson heard about her call, he accused her of requesting an audit behind his back and angrily threw a gay magazine called Next on her desk, yelling, “There’s your audit!” As for the money that the pastor used on Jonathan and his own trips to gay bars in New York and gay resorts in Florida, $14,000 was allegedly taken from the school candy drive, and thousands more from student tuition money.

$150,000 unaccounted for

Eventually, Samide called Msgr. James Spengler, the episcopal vicar for southeast Queens, and asked for his help. A diocesan audit was initiated this past January but there have been no definitive results outside of the revelation that up to $150,000 remains unaccounted for.

“Msgr. Spengler kept reassuring me,” Samide said recently in her office, “reminding me that St. Elizabeth’s has been the diocese’s biggest problem. But still nothing was ever really done.”

There were two occasions when, after a special school function, Thompson took Samide to dinner and then proceeded to take her to two gay bars in Greenwich Village. One of them was an African-American gay bar, “The Hangar,” where Thompson, who is white, confided “this is where a man can pick up black boys.” A monsignor whom they both knew was sitting at the bar and walked to the back when he saw them. At the other gay bar, called Ty’s, another monsignor was at the bar having a drink.

Samide was the only woman in both places. “I was uncomfortable and very offended on both occasions,” she said later.

“I wondered what I had done to engender such disrespect from Fr. John, but I felt it was his way of showing me that he’s not alone in his lifestyle.” Thompson later boasted that he “could take down half the diocese” with what he knows about gay priests in the diocese.

She said on several occasions she was attacked by the priest. She said Thompson continually threatened to hit her and fire her unless she did what he ordered. According to her lawyer, Dowd, Thompson hit her with his belt and would occasionally place it on her desk with the warning, “Don’t make me use this.”

Eventually, with Samide calling the diocese constantly, Thompson was removed on March 24, and Spengler told the parish that he “hoped that Fr. Thompson would be reassigned to a compatible position in the diocese.”

Earlier, on May 4, several files and documents relative to the audit were stolen from the principal’s desk. But when she reported it to the diocesan office and said that Thompson had a key to her office, she was told that going to the police would only create more of a problem.

It was at this point that two priests advised her to get legal counsel and go to the district attorney. She acted on that advice, and a round of subpoenas was soon issued for a special grand jury to investigate the finances at St. Elizabeth’s and to consider criminal charges against Thompson.

Samide then filed the civil lawsuit for sexual harassment and negligence. She alleged that Daily ignored her constant complaints about Thompson while protecting his priest and the image of the diocese.

Officials in the Brooklyn diocese have told The New York Times that they expect a grand jury to indict Thompson soon. While they acknowledged that money is missing from the parish, they say the amount is far less than Samide has alleged. Thompson, they said, is currently not functioning as a priest.

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002