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Bishop: Burlington Priest Removed After Misspending, 'Inappropriate' Behavior

A Catholic priest was placed on leave from a Burlington church last summer for misspending more than $23,000 in parish funds and making inappropriate comments toward staffers, VPR has learned.

Father Richard O’Donnell had been the priest at Christ the King St. Anthony Parish church until he was placed on an indefinite leave of absence around late July 2015, according to the Most Rev. Christopher Coyne, the bishop of Burlington.

An internal diocesan audit and a private outside investigation found that O’Donnell did not break any laws, Coyne said in an interview Monday, in response to inquiries from VPR. But it found O’Donnell spent “exorbitant” amounts of parish money on gifts for staff, lavish tips when he went out to eat, and personal mileage reimbursement related to non-church business, he said.

“He wasn’t taking the money himself and he wasn’t doing these things [for] himself,” Coyne said. “It was just basically that there was a problem with his being overly generous with ... parish money. He just shouldn’t have been using it that way.”

O’Donnell also got in trouble with the diocese for “inappropriate behavior and language towards staff” at the church and at the Christ the King Catholic school, Coyne said.

O’Donnell is now on an “indefinite leave of absence” and is not allowed to perform any priestly duties without the bishop’s permission, though he has not been defrocked, Coyne said.

O’Donnell was staying at Enders Island, a Catholic retreat in Connecticut, according to a forwarding address provided by the church in Burlington. The facility offers “retreats, recovery opportunities, spiritual development and educational programs for lay men and women, religious sisters and brothers and priests,” according to its website.

It’s unclear whether he’s still there; he did not respond to VPR’s phone messages left with retreat staff.

The diocese in Burlington conducted its own internal investigation and also hired an outside auditor; Bishop Coyne said he does not know of any ongoing outside investigations. The Burlington Police Department said it was not investigating the matter.

Parish staff and diocesan finance officials first began looking into O’Donnell’s spending problem around March 2015, said Coyne, who had been installed as the new Bishop of Burlington that January. O’Donnell repeatedly vowed to rectify the spending problems, but he never did, Coyne said.

Two months later, the bishop learned about O’Donnell’s behavior problems, Coyne said.

Coyne said he got complaints from staffers of both genders, but the problem was “most acute” with O’Donnell’s language toward women.

There was “name-calling that, at times, he would say, ‘Oh, I’m just joking,’ but you just don’t call a woman particular words,” Coyne said.

It was behavior that “no company would allow an employee to do, let alone a priest,” he said.

Around late May or early June of last year, after "significant negotiation," Coyne said he persuaded O’Donnell to take a personal leave to deal with his behavior problems.

After an administrator took charge of parish finances, church officials began to realize the extent of O’Donnell’s lavish spending, which had gone unchecked despite the priest’s earlier assurances, Coyne said. The diocese also began an internal audit of O’Donnell’s spending.

"Nothing criminal in the sense of, you know, he was never trying to hide anything. It was all right there. You just had to look." — Most Rev. Christopher Coyne, the bishop of Burlington

In late July 2015, Coyne said he put O’Donnell on an indefinite leave of absence, and the priest ultimately resigned. The church bulletin on July 26 only said the O'Donnell was dealing with “personal and health issues,” but that he was still the pastor of Christ the King.

In the Sept. 6 church bulletin, Coyne wrote to parishioners at Christ the King that O’Donnell had offered his resignation and would be taking part in a “renewal program for priests.” That month, the Diocesan Finance Office also finished an internal audit of Christ the King finances, which confirmed O’Donnell’s misspending. Those findings were shared with church and school administrators, Coyne said.

The diocese also hired an outside auditor to investigate, and its findings in December 2015 confirmed the church’s internal probe.

The bishop declined to make those investigation documents available to VPR, saying they were private. He also declined to offer a breakdown O'Donnell's alleged misspending.

But by example, Coyne said the O'Donnell would buy clothing and birthday presents for staffers on the parish dime, claim mileage reimbursements for non-church business and leave overly generous tips at restaurants.

“Like, a burger and a beer would [cost him] $28, and the tip would be like $50,” Coyne said.

Coyne said it would have been fine if O'Donnell wanted to spend his own money on those things, but he shouldn't have used parish funds. All told, Coyne said the audits found O’Donnell’s misspending totaled more than $23,000.

Both the auditors and diocesan lawyers found that O’Donnell had not broken any laws, as he didn’t try to lie to cover up his spending habits, Coyne said.

“Nothing criminal in the sense of, you know, he was never trying to hide anything,” Coyne said. “It was all right there. You just had to look.”

Coyne revealed the contours of the situation in a letter to parishioners on April 17, 2016, though he didn’t get into details. 

The diocese has reimbursed the misspent money to Christ the King, and O’Donnell has agreed to pay back the diocese through salary deductions, Coyne said. The diocese is also paying for some of O’Donnell’s health care and treatment costs.

Despite the spending and behavior problems, Coyne said O’Donnell is a “good guy,” and was a well-liked, popular priest at Christ the King.

“It’s a shame that this happened but, who knows where this is going to lead us,” Coyne said. “Hopefully he can get back in the ministry some day. That’s my prayer.”

Update 9:52 p.m. 5/11/16: This story has been updated to include information from Burlington police, and to add context for Bishop Coyne's statements.

Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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