Sunday, August 22, 2004

Church works to regain trust

Anger still brews at Good Shepherd

By Sheila McLaughlin
Enquirer staff writer

MONTGOMERY - With a $271,000 settlement reached with former pastor Tom Axe and a prosecutor's investigation still pending, leaders at Good Shepherd Catholic Church are working to restore trust.

But those who fill the pews, and others who have left the archdiocese's largest church over the money scandal, doubt they will ever feel the same.

"Some people are just very understanding and have been very kind and forgiving. Some people right now are in a state still of anger both at the previous pastor and at the archdiocese for letting things like this happen," said the Rev. Father Robert Schmitz, who took over leadership of the parish after Axe retired in the midst of a church audit last October.

"It's a huge range that we have, and what I kind of expected."

Days after announcing that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati had reached a settlement with Axe, who conceded he had misused church money, parish leaders fielded questions Tuesday from about 300 church members in a town hall-style meeting with Axe's lawyer, parish staff, as well as an attorney and finance officials for the archdiocese.

Schmitz held a special prayer service Thursday, and a national expert with a reputation for helping troubled churches will visit Good Shepherd for a retreat in October.

New financial procedures have been implemented and all off-the-books and discretionary funds were eliminated, Schmitz said.

That's a good start, but not enough for member Anne Tamashasky.

She is critical of the settlement with Axe because the parish won't get any money back.

She was among about 20 parishioners who peppered church officials with questions Tuesday.

Tamashasky said they would not talk specifically about how Axe spent the money, but Schmitz said details are expected to be released to parishioners.

Parish officials have said that the $271,000 that Axe owes will be applied to Good Shepherd's debt to the archdiocese instead of being given back to the parish. Axe will pay the archdiocese back over time.

"If Father Tom came to me and said, 'I don't know why I did it. I'm human. I made a mistake,' then I've got no issue with it," said Tamashasky, who serves as a lector and in other lay functions. She said Axe helped her tremendously after the death of her father in 1995.

"But you want me to believe that I'm not entitled to any kind of an explanation, I should pay myself back, and I should get on with it? I can't do that."

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk ordered an audit of the church's finances after parish officials contacted the archdiocese with concerns about the use of the church discretionary funds.A church audit concluded that Axe had spent some of the parish's money on himself.

Axe remains under investigation by the Hamilton County prosecutor's office, although archdiocese officials maintain the 70-year-old priest did nothing criminal.

"Part of the issue here is whether it's a violation of a law for somebody who has access to a discretionary account to use it in a way that displays bad discretion," archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said.

Scott Mussari, a longtime member and paid director of educational ministries, said prayer will be a critical part of the church's effort to help parishioners move forward.

"It's a way to allow yourself to hopefully move beyond the situation - not to forget about it. We might never do that, but to look ahead to the future to become more at peace with yourself," he said.

Schmitz said church attendance and collections have been down since last fall, when news of the misspending broke. But, he couldn't gauge how much was related to the money.

Leslie Hershberger, a 29-year-member of Good Shepherd, is one who left the parish.

Hershberger, a former parish council president, thinks Good Shepherd and archdiocese officials should have been more open with parishioners.

"Father Schmitz has been extraordinarily open with finances... which I admire," she said.

"The problem is, people aren't stupid. You've got a breach of trust, and they don't have faith."



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