'The Truth Is Tough' for Parishioners at St. John's

By Mark Ginocchio
The Advocate
July 30, 2006,

DARIEN — It was a day of anger but also a day of recovery, officials at St. John's parish said yesterday.

After parishioners were sent a copy of a report last week detailing exorbitant financial improprieties at St. John Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Frank McGrath, the new pastor, told those at 4:30 p.m. Mass yesterday that it was understandable to "still be in shock," but he also advised them to be strong.

"We are moving in the right direction," McGrath said. "We're in this together."

During his homily, the Rev. Walter Orlowski of St. Matthew's Church in Norwalk, told parishioners to read the entire 27-page report describing how St. John's former pastor, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, misspent an estimated $1.4 million in church donations to lead a life of luxury with another man.

"Sometimes the facts aren't easy to swallow," said Orlowski, a member of the Diocese of Bridgeport finance council task force. "The truth is tough."

The report, which was conducted independently by Deloitte Financial Advisory Services after a directive from Bridgeport Bishop William Lori, details how Fay used church money for limousine rides, jewelry, visits at top hotels and the purchase of a beachfront condominium in Florida with a man.

The report also documents the diocese's response to the allegations, including its initial review of Fay's financial activities April 28; the freezing of his parish bank account a few days later; the bishop's conversations with Fay about their findings; and the bishop's directive for Fay to resign May 17.

The report, along with a letter from Lori, was mailed to about 1,700 registered parishioners last week.

When asked by Orlowski, more than half of those attending the packed Mass acknowledged they had received the report.

The financial improprieties first surfaced after the church bookkeeper and an associate pastor hired a Stamford private investigator to look into Fay's spending. After a two-week review going back two years, the investigator, Vito Colucci, said he found evidence that Fay stole at least $200,000 in parish funds -- much of it used to wine and dine Philadelphia wedding planner Cliff Martell.

Martell, who also goes by the surname Fantini, has been romantically linked to Fay with a photo of the couple appearing in the January-February issue of Philadelphia Style magazine -- dubbed the "sexiest issue ever." They share addresses in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Manhattan's East 63rd Street.

The FBI and U.S. attorney's office are investigating Fay's spending to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

Linda Barone, who is not a registered parishioner but has attended Mass at St. John for nearly 10 years, said she did not receive the report, but she appreciated the transparency and candor of the parish and the diocese.

"I think the bishop is doing what he can, but I don't think there's much more that can be done at this point," Barone said after Mass. "I think many of us were surprised that the amount (of money) spent was as high as it was."

In private conversations with parishioners in the past few days, McGrath said many people still feel "abused, misled and betrayed" by the findings in the report.

"There are people who are saying 'let's just get out of this' and 'what are we going to do to make this better?' " McGrath said in an interview before Mass.

Most parishioners declined to comment before and after Mass. Some said they were optimistic about the future of the parish, while others were still angry.

Diocese spokesman Joseph McAleer said the range of emotions was expected, but he said he was hopeful the report would help parishioners heal.

"The road to recovery begins anew today," McAleer said. "People have the right to know what we found, and the sense I got from a lot of people I talked to today was appreciation."


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