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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

Parish pushes for information on ouster

Newton, Mass.

Members of Our Lady Help of Christians Parish, convinced that an ousted pastor is not going to return, continue to press the Boston archdiocese for a further explanation of the action taken against him, for greater transparency regarding procedures used in his case and his reinstatement in “meaningful ministry.”

Recent developments at Our Lady Help of Christians also indicate that Fr. Walter H. Cuenin’s ouster and replacement by a chancery insider, Fr. Christopher J. Coyne, may have been in the planning for months before the switch actually occurred.

At a recent meeting of the parish council, Coyne said that he had been asked by archdiocesan officials back in June if he would consider accepting the pastor’s job at Our Lady. That was two months before the completion of a financial audit that the chancery officials say led to their asking for Cuenin’s resignation.

Parish finance council members have not yet seen the outside audit conducted by DeLoitte & Touche, but Coyne has requested copies of the audit from the archdiocese for the parish finance council’s review, according to Rosa Buffone, a parish council member.

In late September, Cuenin told parishioners that he was forced to resign for “financial irregularities” not in accord with archdiocesan policies. Specific allegations included Cuenin’s receipt of stipends for saying Mass in excess of standard policy, the leasing of a car for use by parish priests, and a salary Cuenin drew from both the archdiocese and parish during a sabbatical period. The various alleged violations amount to between $75,000 and $85,000, a sum Cuenin has agreed to reimburse.

For David Castaldi, chairman of the board of trustees for the church reform organization Voice of the Faithful, questions remain about financial practices within the archdiocese. But for him, the big question is “Are the policies that applied to Walter [Cuenin] being applied to other priests in the same way and in similar situations,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

Increasing numbers of people believe that Cuenin was targeted for removal because of his outspoken criticism of Cardinal Bernard Law during the sex abuse crisis, his welcome for gays and lesbians and divorced and remarried Catholics, and his encouragement of dialogue about the ordination of women.

The new revelation at a parish council meeting only fuels those suspicions. Minutes of that council meeting in fact indicate that when asked when he first knew of Cuenin’s forced ouster, Coyne said “that he was told in June of the possibility of a leadership change at Our Lady’s and asked if he would be interested in the pastorate.”

The Oct. 11 official minutes are posted on the parish Web site ( According to the minutes, Coyne said that “he would think about it, but it was not finalized until shortly before the appointment was made.”

Coyne also told the parish council that “he had anticipated a negative reaction but not to the extent that has occurred” since his appointment as pastor, according to the minutes. Coyne said, too, “that, given the level of mistrust in this parish, he would have reconsidered accepting his assignment,” according to several council members present and the minutes themselves. Coyne has been unavailable for comment.

According to the finance council and a pastor’s note from Coyne, the weekly collection at Our Lady’s has dropped by one-third since Cuenin was ousted.

The simmering outrage at the perceived injustice has sparked the creation of Our Lady’s Friends, an independent nonprofit organization that was spearheading opposition to Cuenin’s forced ouster.

Though now acknowledging that Cuenin will not return, the group continues to be active, seeking support not only from Our Lady parishioners, but also the wider community and to Catholics in other parishes, recently gathering signatures for a petition at 10 parishes within the archdiocese. The Friends group is demanding that Archbishop Sean O’Malley “admit that Fr. Cuenin was treated unjustly and dishonestly by those who accused him … and that the archbishop publicly acknowledge and apologize for this injustice”; that the archdiocese “disclose all financial information leading to the alleged financial improprieties”; that the archdiocese exonerate Cuenin and “reinstate him to meaningful ministry”; and that the archdiocese “recognize the rights of Our Lady’s parishioners and lay leadership to be involved in decisions that affect our future as a faith community, including the right to have an effective role in selecting our pastor.”

The fact that Our Lady’s Friends is reaching out to other parishes “is very, very significant,” said Steve Krueger, founding executive director of Voice of the Faithful. “To the best of my knowledge,” he added, “this has not been done before, certainly not in the archdiocese of Boston, where lay people have gone to parishes and petitioned Catholics for an action of justice and to unify Catholics behind a cause.”

Outrage at injustice has also resonated with Our Lady’s justice and peace committee. The committee has drafted an open letter and sent it to O’Malley. “It is heartbreaking for us to have to name injustices perpetrated by our own church leaders,” wrote two dozen members who signed the letter, adding, “The assignment of [Coyne] to replace [Cuenin] ... feels vengeful and punitive.” Furthermore, they write, to replace a “welcoming and progressive priest in favor of a diocesan insider, create[s] a chilling effect across the entire diocese.”

Chuck Colbert is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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