Seven years ago, Msgr. Joseph McLoone was dispatched to Downingtown with a tall task: to try to stabilize St. Joseph Parish, a Catholic community left shell-shocked after its pastor was charged with protecting priests who preyed on children across the region.
In time, McLoone, a Philadelphia native, proved to be a popular figure at the church, which, with about 4,700 families, is among the largest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
But this weekend, St. Joseph parishioners learned that his tenure had come to a shocking end. The archdiocese announced that McLoone, 55, had resigned – less than two months after he went on an indefinite leave of absence – amid an investigation into financial improprieties and inappropriate "relationships with adults" that violated archdiocesan standards.
Ken Gavin, the archdiocese's spokesman, said that in 2011, McLoone allegedly set up an off-the-books bank account in the parish's name that only he could access. More than $110,000 worth of donations and "other revenue generated by the parish" was funneled into the account, although the archdiocese doesn't believe the money came from Sunday collections, or school and tuition fees, he said.
Some of the transactions from the secret account appeared to be linked to normal parish expenses, Gavin said. Others clearly weren't.
McLoone told archdiocesan officials that he spent approximately $1,500 on "personal expenses of an inappropriate nature," according to Gavin. "Those expenses were related to relationships with adults that represent a violation of the Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries established by the archdiocese."
His statement did not elaborate on the nature of the relationships, except to say none involved members of the parish or children. The archdiocese standards, intact for at least 15 years, outline conduct expectations for priests, deacons, administrators, staff, and even volunteers, on matters ranging from harassment and sexual misconduct to contact with children, gambling, and the use of email and other technology.
In February, the archdiocese froze the account that McLoone secretly maintained. At least $50,000 worth of expenses and ATM withdrawals still need to be explained, Gavin said, and the archdiocese will seek restitution for any transactions that were inappropriate. He also said the ongoing review could also include referring the matter to law enforcement.
McLoone could not be reached for comment Sunday. In an emailed statement, his brother, Pat McLoone, a managing editor at the Inquirer and Daily News said: "My family and I love our brother and just hope he is given a chance to defend himself. Other than that, we have no comment."
With more than 250 parishes spread across the five-county region, the Philadelphia archdiocese has endured its share of investigations and clouds. McLoone's departure is notable in part because the parish is one of the largest and more affluent, and his arrival there was intended to bring calm after one of the church's most turbulent stretches.
McLoone had served at St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Chester, Delaware County, when he was tapped in 2011 to replace Msgr. William Lynn, who stepped down as pastor after a Philadelphia grand jury investigation ended with him as the first church administrator nationwide to be charged with ignoring or covering up pedophile priests.
Lynn, who before coming to St. Joseph had spent a dozen years as the archdiocese's secretary for clergy, was convicted in 2012 on conspiracy and child endangerment charges. That conviction was overturned in 2015, but he is expected to face a retrial.
Prior to arriving at St. Joseph, McLoone spoke about the turmoil its parishioners were experiencing over Lynn's arrest. "I do think it's a very hard time for them because their pastor, it's a person they know and loved," he said. "I'm sure they will have conflicting emotions."
On Sunday, some were confronting a new turmoil.
"I just feel like now as a parish we really need to unite as a community," Chrissy Bannon said after attending the 4 p.m. Mass at St. Joseph. "I feel like this is just another wound so many people are feeling."
Some curious parishioners began raising questions about McLoone's absence more than a month ago on Catholics4Change.com, an independent accountability forum. "There were rampant rumors of financial problems," said Kathy Kane, one of the website's editors.
Kane said she contacted the archdiocese and was told that McLoone wasn't under criminal investigation, but that a financial review was simply being conducted for the benefit of Msgr. Thomas Dunleavy, who replaced McLoone this year on an interim basis. But rumors of deeper problems persisted and she said she urged the archdiocese to address the matter with parishioners.
Dunleavy shared the archdiocese's statement on his departure at Masses this weekend. But someone apparently beat the archdiocese to the punch; an anonymously written flier speculating on the reasons behind his absence was inserted into some copies of the parish bulletin, and later shared online.
During the late-afternoon liturgy on Sunday, Dunleavy told the congregation of about 200 that the fliers were neither official nor accurate.
McLoone's photo and biographical information have since been removed from the parish's website. As of Sunday afternoon there was no mention of the controversy on the church's Facebook page, which still features words of praise for McLoone from several visitors, one of whom described the pastor as a "great guy" in 2015.
The church bulletin also offered no clues, though it did note it was "Commitment Weekend," and urged supporters to pledge for a parish fund-raising campaign that has already collected $1.2 million.
Among those who trickled out after Mass on Sunday evening, the news of the pastor's resignation stirred conflicting emotions.
"You can't understand how many people enjoyed [McLoone]. The man, not the sin part of the man, but the man," said Mark Michaels, 54, a parishioner who lives in Downingtown.
Michaels said McLoone was known for using comedy to help people understand faith. He and others struggled to reconcile their sunny memories of McLoone with the troubling allegations.
"We can't control what happened," said Michaels, whose children graduated from St. Joseph School. "[McLoone] has to deal with that on his own."
Chrissy Bannon, 38, who said she drives 25 minutes from Morgantown every week to attend Mass at St. Joseph, called the church "an amazing parish" that had overcome so much – and would continue to thrive.