Archbishop Martin Currie says he’s saddened by the findings of a recent financial review that uncovered a misappropriation of funds in excess of $500,000 at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s.
The review, by accounting firm Ernst and Young, has led to allegations that a former comptroller and business manager made unauthorized payments to himself and to his pension account, dating back to 2003.
Currie reacted Monday with mixed emotions, while recalling how Bill Power, whom he considered a trusted colleague and friend, came to his aid two years ago when he was near death in his home from carbon monoxide poisoning.
“I will always be grateful to him for his quick actions at that time, but as archbishop of St. John’s, my primary responsibility is to the people who are entrusted to my care, my guidance and my leadership and to see that their money is managed wisely,” Currie said.
Power found Currie semi-conscious at his home in Outer Cove after he failed to show up for mass at the Basilica on New Year’s Day in 2009. A collapsed chimney liner had allowed carbon monoxide, an odourless gas, to escape and infiltrate the air in his home.
“He came to my house and discovered me covered in soot and unconscious on the bed. He phoned 911 and, so, that’s why I find this very difficult,” Currie said.
Power resigned last fall after working with the archdiocese for almost 38 years.
“He was trusted, he had the confidence, he had the history of the diocese, so it was a shock and a surprise to all when this came to light,” Currie said.
“When I first came here three years ago, in the company of Mr. Power, he was speaking of retiring at that time,” Currie said, adding that Power asked if he could continue to work on the archdiocese cemeteries account and he agreed to that.
Then, after the bottom fell out of the stock markets, Currie said Power told him he had lost a lot of pension money and would like to continue working full-time until the markets recovered.
Currie said the archdiocese offers all employees a pension plan, with joint contributions made by employees and the employer. Power’s annual salary before his termination was $109,000 to $110,000 a year for his combined role as comptroller of the diocese and manager of its cemeteries.
Currie said the review found that unauthorized cheques were manually written by Power to himself and legitimate expenses were inflated to cover the unauthorized payments.
Power has not been charged with any crime.
The financial discrepancies were discovered about three months ago. “He gave me his resignation on Thanksgiving day in October, just this past year, when it come to light at that time. In speaking with him, he could not justify the expenditures that were there and he submitted his resignation. Then we conducted the review, afterward,” Currie said.
“Whatever motivated this to happen, I’m not sure, but that is a part of the sadness,” Currie added. “One who is entrusted and given the responsibility to manage the money of a charity and misappropriate it, it’s a real breach of trust.”
Currie said the archdiocese decided to pass this matter over to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and it will be up to police investigators to decide whether criminal charges will be laid.
RNC media relations officer Const. Colin McNeil confirmed late Monday that a formal complaint has been filed by the archdiocese and officers with the RNC economic crime unit have started an investigation. He said it could take some time to complete.
In the meantime, Currie said the archdiocese is working with an interim finance director and team of advisers and has put in place more stringent guidelines and safeguards to prevent anything like this from occurring in the future.
Currie said unilateral decisions will no longer be made by the business office.
“We have a person I call a vicar general, his role will be changing,” he said. “The business manager will now report to the vicar general and all cheques will need to be countersigned.”
A new business manager, a chartered accountant with experience in the public sector, will be hired in February.
The archdiocese says it won’t be making a decision on legal action against Power until the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary conducts its investigation. However, Anne Walsh, director of adult faith formation with the archdiocese, said avenues are being explored to recover some of the money, including “action against the firm that bonded the former business manager, who has also expressed willingness to repay money overpaid into his pension.”
In today’s society, Currie said, charitable organizations are held to a high degree of accountability and transparency.
“As a charitable organization, we don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize our ability to serve the needy throughout the archdiocese, through our programs and institutions,” he said. “It’s always a concern, you know, that the misappropriation of funds compromises the public trust and might compromise our ability to serve the poor and the most vulnerable.”
Currie said the archdiocese wants to assure the public in the Burin, Placentia and Avalon regions, who contribute to the church, that their funds are being used wisely and for what they were intended.