Their parish priest, the Rev. Stephen Newton, had been dismissed without explanation after conducting his final services at the Old Town church June 16. Many parishioners believed his ouster was retaliation by church leaders for Newton’s support of Portland Pride events in June.
People didn’t touch the tray of M&M cookies but instead quizzed a vicar flown in from Indiana to explain Newton’s sacking. All he would say is that Newton showed “bad management” and “poor judgment.”
The vague answers only fed suspicions of the church’s actions. But documents obtained by WW suggest why Newton was let go: He appears to have mismanaged hundreds of thousands of dollars in parish funds.
A financial review conducted by the Archdiocese of Portland found that the parish, under Newton’s management, depleted $285,000 in church funds and burned through most of a $400,000 bequest that was supposed to be set aside as an endowment.
The review says Newton steered $35,000 to a defunct African charity he helped run. The financial review calls the spending “excessive” and Newton’s actions “a significant conflict of interest.”
Saint André Bessette, located at 601 W Burnside St., has about 150 members and is known as a poor church that spends what resources it has on serving the homeless and mentally ill.
But the financial review found Newton spent $25,000 on a 2011 Toyota Venza the church didn’t need, and improperly documented cash advances on the church’s American Express card.
One member tells WW that Saint André Bessette now can’t even afford the $200 it spends each month on hot cocoa for the homeless people it serves.
“I can’t say for sure that money was robbed from us,” says Julie Booth, a former member of the church’s pastoral council, who alerted the archdiocese earlier this year about Newton’s spending. “But our community was certainly robbed of a sense of trust.”
The leadership of the Congregation of Holy Cross—whose U.S. province is based in South Bend, Ind., and also operates the University of Portland—ousted Newton, 65, after three years at the church.
Archdiocese spokesman Bud Bunce says Newton was given a chance to respond during the preliminary review. It was the Congregation of Holy Cross’ decision to remove Newton, he adds.
Holy Cross Vicar Rick Wilkinson, who appeared before parishioners Sunday, declined to offer specifics about Newton’s dismissal, telling WW it was a personnel matter.
The archdiocese’s financial review says Newton started a tithing program in 2011 whereby 10 percent of money collected by the church was diverted to a charity called the Institute for Central and East African Rehabilitation. The review says Newton sent the money through his personal bank account in Chicago.
“Relatively little documentation of the organization itself could be located,” it says. “At minimum, this activity constitutes a significant conflict of interest due to the pastor’s ties to the organization.”
The Institute for Central and East African Rehabilitation has not filed a tax return since 2005, and was stripped of its tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.
Newton, who returned to Chicago, tells WW the charity has been renamed Newton Treatment Centre and is now located in Nairobi, Kenya. He says he helped found it in 1999 after he learned of the need for recovery services there.
Newton, a recovering alcoholic himself, has a history of setting up recovery services. In the late 1970s, he helped found the DePaul Recovery Centers in Portland, which are still operating, according to a 2010 Street Roots profile.
Newton says the tithing was announced to the parish and approved by parish leadership. But Booth says few parishioners knew about it.
Newton acknowledges he can’t account for how the money was spent by the charity, which has landed him in trouble before. Court records show he filed for bankruptcy in Chicago in 2005 after he racked up $45,500 in credit-card debt despite making $31,000 a year. Newton tells WW he donated the money to the charity.
Wilkinson told WW he doesn’t know why Holy Cross would hand a man with recent financial struggles the keys to a church and its accounts. Bunce says the archdiocese monitors churches’ spending by having parishes turn in financial statements once a year and by doing a more thorough review when a priest leaves. The archdiocese, he adds, does not view any of Newton’s actions as criminal.
Newton insists he ran the church’s finances well, leaving the parish $800,000 in the black and sitting on a $1.8 million endowment.
But the archdiocese’s financial review says Saint André Bessette would have run more than $418,000 in the red last year if it hadn’t spent money that was supposed to be kept in the endowment.
On Sunday, several parishioners pleaded with Wilkinson to explain what had happened with the church’s finances.
“Should we not know?” one woman asked. “Should we be kept in the dark?”
Wilkinson demurred and turned to Saint André Bessette’s new priest, the Rev. John Patrick, a slender man in green robes and running shoes. Patrick told parishioners his first order of business will be to settle the church’s finances.
During the mass, he also hinted he was not going to dwell on the past as he read from Luke 9:62: “Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”