Opens bank book at scandal church

Rev. Joseph Baker holds up St. John's bank records.

Daily News/July 19, 2004
By Amy Sacks and Nicole Bode

In hopes of restoring his parishioners' trust, a priest at a scandal-rocked upper East Side church laid open the Good Book - and the ledger book - yesterday at Mass.

Standing in for the ousted Msgr. John Woolsey, who is under investigation for $1million in missing church funds, the associate pastor set a new tone for St. John the Martyr by giving a play-by-play of the parish's financial transactions.

"These are the accounts," the Rev. Joseph Baker told dozens of churchgoers, holding up bank statements from the church's checking and savings accounts after Communion. "This is your parish, you make it up ... not the priests, we're just the employees."

"I want to be able to say, I'm not hiding anything from you. I want to tell them, it's not my money. It's your money," Baker told reporters after Mass. "You should never be afraid of the truth."

Woolsey, 66, stepped down last week after an audit by the Archdiocese of New York found about $1 million in church funds went missing during his eight years at St. John's.

Investigators from the Manhattan district attorney's office are now looking into the charismatic priest's posh lifestyle - which reportedly included an account at Brooks Brothers, showy Rolex watches and luxury cars.

The furor was sparked after the family of late parishioner Rose Cale sued Woolsey, claiming he swindled the 88-year-old out of $500,000 and swiped $241,500 meant for the church coffers.

Although parishioners' reactions were mixed yesterday, many at St. John's said they were surprised how quickly the archdiocese seemed to turn its back on the beleaguered priest.

In addition to asking him to step down on Friday, higher-ups took what appeared to be a thinly veiled dig at Woolsey at morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Edward Cardinal Egan's stand-in, the Rev. Eugene Clark, told churchgoers at the 10:30 a.m. Mass that although there are a lot of people out there trying to scam them, many others are trying to help.

"I think he was making a direct correlation" to Woolsey, said churchgoer Susie Ellegard, 50. "It's like he was saying the priest did something bad, but we shouldn't condemn all priests for doing bad things."

Yet many at St. John's refused to let their loyalties waver.

"Father Woolsey brought me back to church. I feel a terrible loss for him," said Patricia Kelly, 43, a registered nurse from the upper West Side. "We haven't counted him out yet."

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