Burlington Pastor Resigns amid financial inconsistencies

Audit finds ‘poorly documented, allegedly misused church funds’

By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald

BURLINGTON – Amid allegations of financial non-compliances, Fr. Jeffrey Thielen, resigned as pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Burlington Aug. 12.

According to archdiocesan communications director, Julie Wolf, a review by the archdiocese and auditing firm Baker Tilly found approximately $75,000 in poorly documented and allegedly misused church funds. Two church trustees and the parish business administrator also resigned, but they are not suspected of any misconduct.

“These people seemed to be respectful of the pastor,” she said. “They are supposed to be in place to provide checks and balances, but often the staff and volunteers look to the pastors for guidance.”

Expenditures found that Fr. Thielen’s compensation was beyond his priestly salary and about $58,000 was used for gift cards as gratuities for people, compensating them for incidentals, such as gasoline.

“There was little documentation in place for expenditures,” Wolf said, “and coming up with an accurate number was difficult.”

The investigation began after several parishioners of the parish, 108 McHenry St., voiced concerns to archdiocesan officials regarding financial inconsistencies.

“We had received phone calls from people from the parish,” Wolf said, “We started an internal review and then Baker Tilly, a certified public accounting firm, undertook an independent financial review.”

The review purportedly found Fr. Thielen had not followed archdiocesan internal controls for financial management regarding compensation, professional expenses or the checks and balance system to ensure proper accounting of parish finances.

“There is a parish manual that lays out the whole set of controls,” John Marek, chief financial officer for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said.

After financial concerns were brought to the attention of archdiocesan officials, Fr. Thielen agreed to, and actually invited, a review of the parish records.

“He wanted to set straight whatever speculation or concerns that there were,” Marek said. “He was open to that.”

In a prepared statement to Immaculate Conception parishioners last weekend, Bishop William P. Callahan, administrator of the archdiocese, said he had reviewed the report with Marek, the parish corporate attorney and Fr. Thielen.

“This report outlines multiple gaps in parish compliance with archdiocesan fiscal policy,” he stated. “For example, annual financial reports and operating budgets for the parish were not submitted as required. The report also indicates the parish has operated with a deficit budget for at least the past three years. After two years of deficit budgeting, a parish must receive permission to adopt a deficit budget. In addition, the review identified various departures from the financial protocols in place to ensure fiscal responsibility for a parish. Most of these deal with compensation and professional expenses, and also a number of weaknesses in the parish’s internal financial controls.”

Due to the results of the review, Fr. Thielen determined it would be best to leave Immaculate Conception Parish and allow a new administrator to provide pastoral and administrative oversight for parish operations.

Comments from Fr. Thielen were unobtainable as his phone has been disconnected.

For the short term, Bishop Callahan will serve as the parish’s temporary administrator.

“Our hope is to then assign to the parish a priest to serve as the administrator who will serve the parish’s needs until a pastor can be appointed,” he said. “We are not sure how long that process will take because pastors cannot be appointed until we have a new archbishop.”

According to Wolf, Bishop Callahan will oversee the day-to-day operations, celebrate Mass and carry the financial responsibilities of the parish.

The parish is connected with St. Mary Grade School and Catholic Central High School, both located on church property. Wolf admitted that questions have been raised as to school finances as well.

“Some parishioners are wondering about the high school finances,” she said. “The first part of the review was focused on the parish and we will have a second phase of this review that will focus on the high school. That portion should be completed in the next few months.”

Immaculate Conception parishioners are weathering the storm, admitted several parish officials and members, who declined to be named.

“We are doing OK; we have the bishop by our side and he is awesome,” said a long-time employee. “We are going to be fine; he is a wonderful man and we have complete confidence in his ability to lead us in the right direction.”

Fr. Thielen is the former pastor of St. Lucy Parish, 3101 Drexel Ave., Racine, at which a 2007 review of the parish indicated several errors where internal financial controls could have been strengthened said Wolf.

“There was another review done in 2008 by Virchow Krause, now Baker Tilly, and so far there have not been any determinations whether he was connected with any of the financial problems at St. Lucy,” she said.

While no timeline is in place, Michael Nieskes, Racine County district attorney, expects to receive the results of the investigation within a few days. At that time he will determine whether there is enough evidence for further legal measures.

“I can say that law enforcement agencies have been working on this for a period of time and were given information from the archdiocese,” he said. “We had begun investigation prior to Fr. Thielen’s resignation and had been looking at this case for a couple of months. I am not sure when they will finish and give the case to us.”

While speculation continues that additional investigation into the financial records of St. Lucy Parish is forthcoming, Nieskes was unable to comment on a pending investigation.

“I hope to be able to talk with investigators soon to see where we are and I have been in contact with the law firms and the archdiocese who began this long in advance of the pastor’s knowledge of this,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bishop Callahan asks for prayers for the parish and all involved in the difficult transition at Immaculate Conception Parish.

“I want to provide my own personal assurance that the pastoral needs of the people of God are of utmost importance to me, and I will dedicate myself to making sure those needs are met to the best of my ability,” he said.

Report suspected misconduct anonymously EthicsPoint accepts reports onlineArchdiocesan communications director Julie Wolf suggests that parishioners who are concerned about possible financial misconduct in their parishes file an anonymous report to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee through the EthicsPoint Web site.

Reporting financial misconduct:

In an effort to achieve goals of transparency and accountability, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has partnered with EthicsPoint, a third-party company, to administer an online service to report financial misconduct. Parishioners, employees, volunteers, vendors and other individuals can confidentially report concerns about possible financial misconduct. The site can be accessed at: < http://tinyurl.com/pun56a>

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