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Priest Relieved of Duties at Parish School : Bellflower: Parents of children at St. Bernard’s and church officials questioned his handling of finances and personnel. He will remain as pastor.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Catholic priest who has led St. Bernard’s parish and elementary school in Bellflower for 19 years has been stripped of much of his authority by church officials who questioned his financial practices and personnel decisions.

Father Philip J. McGrath, 66, will remain pastor at the parish. But another priest is scheduled to take control Monday of parish finances and management of its school, which has an enrollment of 300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The action, which has touched off a series of protests and has divided parishioners, came on the heels of an investigation by the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, who headed the inquiry, told about 200 parishioners at a meeting Friday that she was concerned about the budgeting process at the 71-year-old parish and the frequent turnover of principals at the school.

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Five principals have headed the school since 1987, when the parish began hiring outside administrators instead of appointing clergy members. McGrath had notified principal Kathleen Flynn, who arrived last year, that she would not be rehired. But the archdiocese overruled the priest.

The archdiocese also will conduct an internal audit of parish finances, a spokesman, Father Gregory Coiro, said this week.

McGrath maintained that he has done nothing wrong, and said he was shocked by the archdiocese’s decision.

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The investigation was launched after parents complained to the archdiocese that thousands of dollars of financial support earmarked for the school apparently had been spent elsewhere.

Specifically, the parents said the school received only a fraction of the money generated by bingo games at the parish, even though the bingo license filed with the city says the proceeds should benefit “grammar school education.”

City records show that the bingo games at St. Bernard’s raised $286,487 from July, 1992, to June, 1993. But, parents said, school budget documents showed that the school received only $24,430 in bingo proceeds during that fiscal year.

McGrath could not be reached for comment on the distribution of bingo proceeds, but he acknowledged after Friday’s meeting that the parish has been making payments on new buildings, including a school library, parish hall and rectory.

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In April, city records show, St. Bernard’s application for a city bingo license was modified to list “grammar school education/parish needs” as the charitable purpose. The change angered some parents, who say the school should be the sole beneficiary of the weekly fund-raiser.

At Friday’s meeting, Galt said Flynn would be rehired as principal for at least the 1994-95 school year. Galt said McGrath had failed to follow “correct archdiocesan procedures” in evaluating the principal.

The trimming of McGrath’s authority and the apparent endorsement of Flynn was met with boos from many in the audience Friday. Since that meeting, some parishioners have picketed the campus, calling for Flynn’s ouster. Critics question Flynn’s commitment to the religious aspects of Catholic education.

Flynn was not available for comment. Her supporters say she is being blamed for problems beyond her control, and credit her with bringing energy and direction to a struggling program.

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