Protest rallies at St. Sebastian Church: What’s it all about?

Protests and prayer rallies outside St. Sebastian Church.

By Cristina DC Pastor

A dismissed Filipino priest and accusations of lack of transparency against the parish priest. How are they connected to the months-long protest rallies now going on at St.  Sebastian Church in Woodside, Queens?

A group calling itself the Catholic Movement for Transparency has been holding weekly protest rallies outside the church urging the ouster of its parish priest, Fr. Kevin Abels. The group, led by its spokesperson Jimmy Dizon, accused Abels and his parish administration of “lack of financial transparency and mismanagement.” He clarified their actions are prayer rallies and not protests.

“Local parishioners are torn on the financial issue—that the lack of transparency is not in keeping with their values as Roman Catholics. Parishioners all over the U.S. have the right to know where their investment and donations are going, as they are putting a piece of their livelihood and time to the local parish,” said the CMT in a statement sent to The FilAm.

The statement came with a financial report showing a purported net loss of $73,818. The group maintained the report, issued by the church, should be published on a regular basis for parishioners to be updated on the fiscal health of their parish.

Said the group further, “The Financial Statement…reflected a loss of more than $73,000. This has been the case since Fr. Abels took the Pastorate of St. Sebastian Church.”

The FilAm reached out to Abels by email.

A response came from John Quaglione, deputy press secretary of the  Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. He denied all charges of financial impropriety against Abels lodged by a “small handful of unfounded opposition.” He offered a different reason for the rallies. He said they “have been stirred by the decision of the diocese not to incardinate Father Joey Francisco.” The diocese has asked Francisco to return to the Philippines, after serving almost three years, but he has not done so.  

He said claims made by CMT are “both inaccurate and dishonest.”

“Father Abels has served the faithful of the parish well and does not deserve the harsh criticism, and false claims of personal purchases, he has had to endure as a result of these protests,” said Quaglione in a statement.

Abels addressed the financial issue in his June 23rd column published in the parish website.  He wrote: “In the bulletin, you will see the copy of the 2017-2018 financial report of the parish. Please note: on Saturday, April 6, I held a joint meeting of the Parish Council, Finance and Stewardship Councils. This report that is in the bulletin was given out to the members of the councils. In addition, once a month I have an accountant come to the rectory for the day, to make sure all is in order. Reports are made to the diocese. The accountant, not me, puts together the final report as seen in the bulletin. After the report is done by the accountant and after I show it to the finance council, the trustees sign the report and it is sent to the diocese which keeps it on file. This has been the case during the last five years of my pastorate!”

Founded in 1894, the St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church is popular among the FilAm residents in Queens, many of them Catholics. Its location on Roosevelt Avenue is especially convenient, being close to the Filipino restaurants on Woodside.  Many prayer meetings and funeral masses have been held here. Some FilAms have seen the rallies organized by CMT and do not understand what the issue is about. Some are curious to know, others are simply indifferent.

Some FilAms who have known Abels have nothing but nice words to say about him. “He is a good parish priest,” said one. “I do not believe the accusations.” Another resident interviewed for this article said he has been following the issue since the Sunnyside Post broke the story in June and said the charges do not seem to speak of the “Fr. Kevin I know.” A petition spearheaded by CMT at calling for a “change of parish leadership at St. Sebastian Church” made the following allegations: “Loss of moral ascendancy, leadership failures, and financial mismanagement.”

“The lack of financial transparency, attitude,  temperament, use of profanity,  Machiavellian divide-and-rule style of management, and incessant drive on fundraising over spiritual upliftment of parishioners, that can only be described as unpriestly, have been percolating since day one of his pastorship and reached the tipping point when he announced the end of Fr. Francisco’s ministry in the parish with no reason given,” said Dizon of CMT in a statement to The FilAm.

The name of Fr. Joey Francisco appears to be at the center of the ongoing friction. Reached by email, Francisco – a priest for 26 years, 16 years served in the U.S. —  said he has accepted the decision of the diocese not to incardinate him and has “moved on with my life.”

“As I told the diocesan authority, I wanted to go quietly. I am applying in other dioceses. I have already moved  on with my life,” he told The FilAm. “I am not anymore interested to go back to St. Sebastian Church.”

Francisco said the issue about the lack of financial transparency has existed before he came to the parish. “Concerned parishioners have told me that I was the ‘tipping point’ when I was terminated by the diocese,” he said.

Asked if he has uncovered financial anomalies as suggested by the CMT, Francisco declined comment. Asked further if a dialogue between Abels and the CMT would end the protests and usher in a kind of healing between the two parties, he said, “I am out of the picture. It is between the CMT and the clergy to resolve the issues. I pray for a speedy resolution for the well-being of the parish.”

To concerned parishioners, Francisco said he is fine and is looking for a new parish to serve. Before coming to St. Sebastian, he was a pastor at the Our Lady of Help of Christians in Brooklyn for five years. Together with almost three years at St. Sebastian, he has worked with the diocese of Brooklyn for  almost  eight years.  

“Some of the parishioners who are not familiar with my status. I am a U.S citizen,” he stated.

Francisco said he has so many beautiful memories of St. Sebastian church, many of them with the parishioners. “I will surely miss them.” His prayer is for the clergy and parishioners to have a “peaceful, united, and dynamic community.”

© The FilAm 2019

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