Catholic priest in pay dispute

Arundel pastor quits

officials say salary exceeded archdiocese limit

June 07, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

The pastor of a Roman Catholic parish in northern Anne Arundel County has stepped down after church officials concluded that he persuaded lay leaders to pay him more money than the Archdiocese of Baltimore allows.

The Rev. Domenic L. Cieri, who led St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Severn for nearly 15 years, received salary and Mass stipends above the scales approved by the archdiocese, according to an audit conducted in October. Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said Cieri also received a housing allowance to live in northern Baltimore County, although his parish has a rectory.

"What he was receiving was an amount that was too generous and was outside the accepted policies and practices of the archdiocese," Caine said.

Known as "Father Nick" to his congregation, Cieri resigned May 29. The 54-year-old priest sent a letter to parishioners last week stating he planned to resign to take a leave of absence after discussions with laity and the archdiocesan leaders about "differences regarding fiscal policies."

More than 450 parishioners gathered in the modern sanctuary last night to hear church leaders discuss Cieri's resignation. Several speakers expressed their love and support for the priest, despite the circumstances surrounding his departure.

"I would hope at Sunday Masses from now on, we'd see a prayer for Father Nick," said Robert Rehbein of Severn.

A number of parishioners also said they believed that church leaders need to take more responsibility for overseeing the pay of priests.

"Nobody above him questioned it," said Cindy Hileman of Severn. "That's not for the laity; it's kind of a boss-colleague relationship."

St. Bernadette, which has about 1,800 families, was scheduled to undergo a routine audit, but an anonymous tipster prompted the archdiocese to look more closely at church compensation. For the fiscal year that ended last June, Cieri earned nearly $48,000 a year, about 70 percent more than the $28,122 that the archdiocese says he was to earn as a pastor ordained for 25 years.

In addition, Cieri received $6,300 in Mass stipends. Priests have the choice of receiving Mass stipends for individual Masses or a lump sum of $2,000, an amount set by the archdiocese, Caine said.

He was also reimbursed nearly $36,000 for rectory expenses, though Caine said the priest did not live in the rectory attached to the church but rather at a house in Baldwin, in northern Baltimore County. And he received more than $14,000 as a housing allowance, which Caine said is not normally given to priests assigned to churches with rectories.

Reached at the Baldwin home, Cieri disputed that assertion, stating that he did live at the rectory while pastor of the church. A church staff member confirmed that he spent some nights at the rectory. He is listed as one of the owners of the Baldwin home, according to state tax records.

The priest declined to comment further about the differences he referred to in his letter.

Priests assigned to special ministries, such as work in the Catholic Center, the archdiocese's headquarters in downtown Baltimore, receive housing allowances, said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, who as eastern vicar oversees 64 parishes in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

"It is most common for our priests to live very near the parish," Rozanski said. For churches without rectories, he added, "they do live in a house in the neighborhood, or right by the parish grounds."

The pastor's residence outside the parish was a problem for more than financial reasons. The church also paid a lot of money in stipends to visiting priests who celebrated some of the church's four Masses each weekend, Caine said -- even though some parishes in the archdiocese do not have resident pastors.

"Not only was the pastor being compensated unfairly -- neither was he present and addressing the pastoral needs of the parish," Caine said. "There is an expectation that a one-parish priest is going to be present on a regular basis and present in a way that the parish feels they're being cared for sacramentally and spiritually."

It is unclear how long Cieri had received the additional payments, but church documents indicate the basic pay structure dates as far back as 1998 or 1999, Caine said.

St. Bernadette's remains financially healthy. "In no time was the parish in any financial danger," Caine said. However, because the payments were approved by the parish's lay leaders, it is unlikely that the money will be recovered.

The leaders thought that because others on staff earned salaries in the $40,000 range, it was appropriate to pay the pastor a comparable wage, Caine said. They also compared his salary to that of clergy in Protestant denominations, who may earn much more.

"In defense of the lay leadership, they were making decisions based on information that was either incomplete or unknown to them," Caine said.

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