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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

Parishioners protest archdiocesan ouster of pastor

Newton, Mass.

The ouster of a beloved parish priest and the assignment of a chancery insider to replace him has triggered another eruption of anger and hurt among the laity of the Boston archdiocese.

Fr. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of the Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, told parishioners that the archdiocese forced his resignation with allegations of financial practices that a chancery press statement said “do not comport with archdiocesan policy, canon law or archdiocesan statutes.”

The alleged financial improprieties include parish payment of a stipend to Cuenin, as well as the use of a Honda that the church leased for use by him and other priests. The finance committee and pastoral council had approved both practices, which had been in place for years.

On Sept. 26, the archdiocese announced that Cuenin’s replacement would be Fr. Christopher J. Coyne, who has served as archdiocesan spokesman under Cardinal Bernard Law and Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley.

During the peak of the sex abuse crisis, Cuenin had been outspoken in his criticism of Law’s handling of the scandal. Over the years, Cuenin also had encouraged dialogue about the ordination of women, and Our Lady Help of Christians was known for welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics, gay and lesbians, and others who felt alienated from the Catholic church.

Parishioner and pastoral council member Larry Kessler said the allegations are “a ruse in my mind and the minds of many.” The car and stipend are “smoke screens,” Kessler said, adding that archdiocese wants “to get Walter out of the pulpit” in part because “he encourages people to think” and “O’Malley wants sheep.”

In fact, both financial practices had been approved, Kessler said, and had been in place for 12 years. “The archdiocese approves the parish budget, and it never raised any red flags,” Kessler said.

Several hundred parishioners were joined by Catholics from other parishes as well as Protestants and Jews at an all-night candlelight prayer vigil Sept. 26 at Our Lady Help of Christians.

In the parish social hall, Margaret Roylance, also a spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful affiliates in Newton and nearby towns, addressed the gathering. “We believe that Fr. Cuenin’s forced resignation as pastor is part of a systematic purge on the part of the archdiocese of priests of integrity, which is being carried out without any consultation with the lay faithful and with complete disregard for their needs and wishes,” she said. “It has all the earmarks of a witch hunt and must be stopped.” Parishioners applauded her calls for Cuenin’s immediate exoneration and reinstatement.

“He’s the heart of Newton,” said town resident Holly Gunner.

Coyne assumed his new duties the same day as Cuenin’s departure Sept. 27.

Chuck Colbert is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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