A leader of two Catholic churches in Vermont's largest city is on an indefinite leave of absence, during which time he cannot present himself as a priest. This follows reports of foul language and misuse of church funds, the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington said.
Father Rich O'Donnell stepped down from Christ the King and St. Anthony's Parish in Burlington last year, but no one seemed to know exactly why, until messages from Bishop Christopher Coyne recently appeared in church bulletins.
"To lose a young priest who's not even in his 40s yet to something like this is a real blow," Coyne told necn in an interview Wednesday. "And especially a priest as popular as Father Rich O'Donnell is an even greater blow."
Coyne said business administrators discovered O'Donnell misused more than $20,000 of church money in less than two years. The spending Coyne described as “inappropriate” included gifts for parish members and employees, overly generous tips at restaurants, and mileage reimbursements for travel not associated with parish work.
Coyne said there were also complaints of locker room-style talk that left church employees uncomfortable. The parish is home to a Catholic elementary school, Christ the King.
"It was just locker room language you would never use in a business place," Coyne explained. "Employees said he would say something inappropriate, and then say, 'Oh, you know I'm just kidding.'"
Coyne praised employees of the parish for raising their concerns, acknowledging they did so for the health of the parish and despite the fondness many have for O'Donnell.
Coyne noted O’Donnell has not been defrocked, so may return to service someday as a priest. But until such a decision has been made to allow that, he may not wear his clerical collar, Coyne explained.
Several parishioners told necn off-camera that the revelations were shocking and heart-breaking, adding they know Father Rich to be a kind person, who reinvigorated the parish and helped many in their personal and spiritual lives.
One parishioner said he is praying for O'Donnell and for the Christ the King and St. Anthony's Parish as a whole. The parishioner said he is confident the parish will heal from this chapter.
"We did think of priests as being something different for the longest time, and we gave them a lot of latitude because they were priests," Coyne told necn. "And we didn't hold them to the same standards that we held laymen and laywomen and others to. As bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, my standards are the same for everybody. If a priest or a layperson crosses the line, we're going to have to deal with that in an appropriate manner."
Coyne said legal advisers from both inside and outside the diocese have told him they do not see the complaints rising to the level of criminal prosecution.
An experienced and well-known monsignor is now pastor of the parish, the diocese noted.
Just last year, necn reported on one reason O'Donnell was so popular. He was working to reinvigorate his parish by engaging 21-35-year-old Catholics who may have fallen away from attending church. O'Donnell did so by launching a series of theological discussions inside a Burlington hot-spot for craft beer.
"If this is where we can meet them, that's great," O'Donnell told necn in April 2015, describing the large crowd that turned out to attend one of the theology discussions inside a Church Street bar. "I go home tonight feeling I've done the best I can for today."
Bishop Coyne recently told parishioners in a letter printed in the church bulletin that the diocese has refunded money to the parish, and in turn, O'Donnell has promised to repay the diocese for questionably-spent funds.
"When we have a sense that it's okay for him to be brought back to ministry, then we will," Coyne said. "But I'd have to have some certitude that these things would not happen again."
Coyne said O'Donnell is staying at a Catholic retreat in Connecticut known as Enders Island that promotes healing, recovery, and renewal through faith.
Necn reached out to O'Donnell Wednesday by phone and text message in an attempt to hear from him, but he has not responded. This article will be updated if he does comment.