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CENTRAL NY: Vestry Rips Bishop & Standing Committe Over Rector's Inhibition


Special to VirtueOnline

September 8, 2005

To the Members of the Standing Committee:

We are writing you concerning our rector Fr. David G. Bollinger who has been temporarily inhibited for 90 days by the Bishop for the reasons set forth in the Bishop's letter to Fr. Bollinger of May 31, 2005. On September 8, 2005, Fr. Bollinger had a hearing before the Standing Committee, in its capacity as the Diocesan Review Committee, to challenge the extension of the temporary inhibition for an additional 90 days. We also understand that any presentment under Canon IV.3.15-17 must originate from you by majority vote.

We write you for three reasons, asking you to refuse an extension of the temporary inhibition pursuant to Canon IV.1.2(d) and to vote not to issue a presentment pursuant to Canon IV.3.18.

First, as you know, our rector, and not the parish, is the subject of the temporary inhibition and its extension. The bishop met with us on May 22, 2005 in an attempt to work out the differences between our priest and our parish on one side, and the diocese on the other. At that time, he invited us to participate in the process of addressing the concerns raised by both the Breiten and forensic audits. We were told that we would have the opportunity to be heard on this, but to date, nobody from the diocese has solicited our input.

There is a second reason why we are writing you. The temporary inhibition against Fr. Bollinger since May 31, 2005, has exacerbated any problems we had before that time. Fr. Bollinger was and continues to be well liked and respected by many in the parish. The inhibition with its prohibition on his having any contact with us is itself causing great distress among us, as is the uncertainty of his being reinstated. Pastorally we feel we have been cut adrift by the diocese, and we take this opportunity to tell you of the great problem which these temporary inhibitions have caused for our parish. For example, our regular Sunday attendance was around 125 before this began and now is closer to about 70. This temporary inhibition is having a highly detrimental effect on the morale and finances of our parish, and we need you to know this.

Thirdly, we write you for the very practical reason that many of the charges which the Bishop raised against our rector are things of which we have direct and personal knowledge. We are first hand witnesses who can speak with directly concerning these charges of misconduct by our rector. We know what happened concerning many of the things which you allege against our rector. We were there when the events occurred, if in fact they did occur. Indeed it is hard to imagine how the diocese can proceed on these charges without our input. It is impossible for the diocese to reach an informed conclusion about those matters without consulting with us and asking what happened.

The inhibition involves the forensic audit of our books and the questions which you have raised concerning our internal finances. As to the actual charges brought against Fr. Bollinger, the Bishop in paragraph I of his May 31, 2005 letter leads off with canon IV.1.1(a) which makes a priest subject to inhibition or presentment for a "crime"* (*this quote and others are taken directly from the May 31, 2005 letter of inhibition) and sets forth four subparagraphs purporting to show criminal behavior by Fr. Bollinger "and possibly others." Subparagraphs 1 and 2 speak of tax fraud, which we take to mean Fr. Bollinger "and possibly others" are accused of taking money from the rector's discretionary fund, the Rowe monies, and pocketing it without reporting the income to the IRS and New York State Tax Commission.

To understand this and the other allegations it is important to understand how we managed the rector's discretionary fund at our parish and the monies in the bequest created by the will of St. Paul's parishioner Mabel G. Rowe.

The rector's discretionary fund by canon law is supposed to be funded by the undesignated offerings in the collection plate which is collected one Sunday per month in accordance with Canon III.9.5(b)(6).

The other monies which the bishop is apparently referring to in paragraph I (1) and (2) of his letter was not the canonical rector's discretionary fund, but instead was the fund resulting from the bequest of St. Paul's parishioner Mabel G. Rowe. Some of the confusion concerning the use of the Discretionary fund comes from the fact that in recent years, the canon discretionary fund and the Rowe Rectors fund were combined. The Canon III.9.5(b)(6) discretionary fund never had anywhere near the dollar amounts to which reference is made in the letter, so the bishop must be referring to the Rowe monies. This latter fund was not in any way restricted; it was set up by the will and hence is governed only by the legal restrictions of the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law of the State of New York, and subject to the direction of the surrogate court of Tioga County under the terms of Miss Rowe's will. Since those monies were given to the rector of the church upon the settlement of the Rowe estate, those monies are not restricted. Even Addendum 2 of the Breiten audit acknowledges that the will does not restrict those monies. Apparently however the bishop wants to take the position that these monies are restricted, and then suggests that informal accounting for these monies is tantamount to stealing and tax fraud.

With respect to the Rowe monies, since they came from outside of the church, we were unaware that we needed to exercise the same sort of fiduciary oversight of this fund, since it is up to the recipient of the funds of a bequest from an estate to account to the surrogate court for them if they are restricted. Because they are not restricted by the will of Miss Rowe, it would appear that the monies can "be used at the discretion of the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church," to quote the language in paragraph 9(b) of the will. That same phrase appears in the "Declaration of Intention" signed by Fr. Bollinger, the wardens of the church, and Bishop Adams updated March 11, 2002. The will by its own terms does not even require that those monies be held in any sort of trust. There is no crime or other legal obligation for the vestry to exercise fiduciary oversight of this money, nor is there any legal obligation of the rector to account for how the money is spent. That said, Fr. Bollinger was usually forthright and open with us as to how the monies were being spent, but these things were generally not recorded in vestry minutes.

In short, the bishop's words that there "may be criminal wrongdoing by [Fr. Bollinger] and possibly others" and allegations of "possible" tax fraud will not stand up to serious scrutiny.

The same can be said of the "unexplained and unsubstantiated handling of more than $22,000" in paragraph I(2) of the bishop's letter. Those monies were given to the Rectors Discretionary Fund, and we know personally that they were spent for a refugee family that was being helped by the parish. The monies were all spent for the refugee family which was the intended purpose. There was no "possible tax fraud" here.

Subparagraph (3) in a general way accuses Fr. Bollinger of "possible violations of various state and federal statutes forbidding personal use of Church funds." Without more specifics in this accusation we cannot answer the bishop's charge, except to say that if he is referring to the same conduct alleged in subparagraphs (1) and (2), we have already addressed that. If you have more details concerning this charge, please get them to us so that we can address them.

Subparagraph (4) is especially troubling to us because in addition to alleging "apparent failure" by the rector, it also accuses us as the wardens and vestry of failure "to exercise mandated fiduciary responsibility by not ensuring proper practices were used in managing endowments and/or bequests." Why misconduct is being attributed to us in a subparagraph accusing our rector of criminal behavior is baffling, to say the least. This is after all a document accusing him of misconduct not us, but apparently the bishop is painting his allegations of criminal conduct with a wide brush. Are we being accused of tax fraud by the bishop? Are we the unnamed "possibly others" which the bishop accuses of "criminal wrongdoing" in the main body of paragraph I in his May 31, 2005 letter to Fr. Bollinger? As vaguely stated as subparagraph (4) it makes it impossible for us to frame any response to this allegation of "criminal wrongdoing" by us. These are very serious allegations, and we see no criminal acts either by ourselves or Fr. Bollinger. If you feel that this subparagraph is correct, we deserve a further clarification of these specific criminal offenses.

Paragraph II of the bishop's letter accuses Fr. Bollinger under Canon IV.1.1(b) of "immorality."

What sort of "collusion" did we engage in? It is not enough to suggest that our rector is acting immorally, but we are colluding with him in this?! This is libel and slander! Does the bishop have inside knowledge of secret meetings where we and the rector got together and colluded to take funds for personal uses? We unequivocally deny this slanderous allegation, and ask that it be withdrawn. It is one thing to lack documentation for transactions and quite another to take money for personal gain.

Paragraph III of the bishop's letter accuses Fr. Bollinger under Canon IV.1.1(e) of violating various ECUSA canons. Subparagraph (1) accuses him of violating Canon III.1.5 of the canons in taking money from his discretionary fund for personal use. Canon III.1.5 is the general canon which specifies all of the various things which a rector should do in a parish. We have read that canon and to our knowledge Fr. Bollinger has faithfully done those things. Only Canon III.1.5(b)(6) within that general section addresses the rector's canonical discretionary fund. As we have said previously, Fr. Bollinger to our knowledge used these monies "to such pious and charitable uses as the Rector shall determine." The canon does not enumerate the things for which the money can be applied. We recently we got a brochure from the diocese for a clergy diocesan conference on October 9, 2005 at the Summer Hill Country Inn in Sherburne, New York which contained the notation that "Bishop Adams believes that it is appropriate to use discretionary funds to pay spouse costs for this retreat." We believe that Fr. Bollinger's canonical discretionary fund monies were similarly applied. We see no Canon III.1.5 violation by our priest.

Subparagraph (2) accuses Fr. Bollinger of violating Canon I.7. This is a very odd charge against him. This provision of the canons is directed toward the parish, and does not even mention the rector. We as a vestry have taken our responsibility seriously to see that proper business methods are used. The New York Religious Corporations Law and the canons charge the vestry and not the rector with the duty of managing the parish finances. It is unclear to us how it would even be possible for our rector to violate a canon which enjoins a duty on us and not upon him.

Subparagraph (3) accuses Fr. Bollinger of violating Canon I.14.2 of the canons. This brief canon, consistent with Article 3 of the New York Religious Corporation Law, says that "the churchwardens and vestrymen so elected and their successors in office, together with the rector, when there is one, shall form a vestry and shall be the trustees of such church or congregation." Religious Corporations Law §41(7), second unnumbered paragraph. We have always acted as a vestry in conjunction with our rector. We as a vestry have always functioned to manage the affairs of the parish. The rector never set his own salary. The rector never had check signing authority for any of the general funds of the church. Only our treasurers have had that authority. Fr. Bollinger pursuant to canon law and the New York statutes exercised signing authority over only his discretionary fund and the extra-canonical monies of the Rowe bequest. Paragraph IV of the bishop's letter accuses Fr. Bollinger under Canon IV.1.1(h) of violating his ordination vows. We can clearly speak to subparagraphs (3) and (4). These are non-issues.

Paragraph V of the bishop's letter accuses Fr. Bollinger under Canon IV.1.1(j) of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. The first two subparagraphs are a repeat of the financial misconduct charges which we have already addressed. Subparagraph (3) accuses our rector of "allegedly bullying several parish staff members into resigning." This is not so. In fact, with the exception of the Treasurer position, each of our parish staff has been with us for over 5 years. The treasurers have either retired, resigned or been dismissed with cause. Subparagraph (4) accuses him of "striking out at treasurers, auditors and diocesan staff persons engaged in lawful activity requested by the vestry of St. Paul's, possibly to conceal your own misdeeds." The use of the term "striking out" is misleading and inflammatory. Disagreements did occur with an inept, incompetent treasurer, not "striking out". We would welcome the opportunity to speak to the specifics. As you know, there is no dispute about the fact that the diocesan comptroller called Fr. Bollinger's private retirement account to access his personal information. She was tape recorded by the account's recording system as she did this. Gael Sopchak, was not asked by us to enter Fr. Bollinger's retirement account. She was asked by the wardens to deal with the managers of that retirement account to resolve another financial mistake made by the treasurer. As to Subparagraph (5), refusing to cooperate with the Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Response Team, we are unaware of any such failure or refusal to cooperate. All we saw was Fr. Bollinger's attempt to maintain confidentiality of an alleged victim of sexual misconduct The alleged victim was given diocesan contact information to use at his discretion if he wished to pursue it. The alleged victim was grateful for Fr. Bollinger's pastoral care.

While we appreciate that this is a long letter setting forth our reasons why we are opposing the extension of the temporary inhibition and opposing a presentment against Fr. Bollinger, it is required because we have been ignored in the process of discipline against him, and it has been necessary to summarize our entire reasons for opposing the actions of the bishop against our priest. If for whatever reason you feel that you need to either extend the temporary inhibition under Canon IV.1.2(d) or to issue a presentment under Canon IV.3.15-17, we ask that you afford us the opportunity to be heard in person.

Cc: Bishop Skip Adams
Recipients of the Notice of Inhibition
Parishioners of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Owego, NY

Yours in Christ,

Members of the Vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Owego:

Laura Coppens, Warden.
Patricia Ellis, Warden.
Harold Bartz.
Lois Bingley.
Alice Botts.
Linda Brisson.
Michael Medovich.
John C. Peterson.
Vera Lin Richards.
Bernadette Toombs.

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