A culture of confidentiality was one of the issues behind failed fundraising efforts to renovate Windsor’s Assumption Church. Courtesy of Assumption Church

Bishop Fabbro vows renewed effort to restore Windsor’s historic Assumption Church

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  • August 31, 2018

A wall of secrecy doomed two successive fundraising campaigns to restore one of Canada’s most significant historical churches in Windsor, Ont., an independent inquiry has found.

Windsor lawyer Paul Mullins discovered that during the two and a half years of the first major fundraising drive to restore Our Lady of the Assumption Church that began in 2009, fundraisers actually spent $450,000 more than they raised. A second, more modest, attempt to find money to restore the 173-year-old church ran aground when an unsuccessful, $193,000 repair job on the heating system resulted in winter temperatures inside the sanctuary of seven degrees. The prospect of freezing parishioners caused the diocese to transfer Sunday Masses to nearby Holy Name of Mary in 2014.

With nobody sure where the money was going, the second fundraising drive was also abandoned, leaving the church’s future in limbo.

Ten months in the making, the Mullins report faults Bishop Ron Fabbro for failing to share with the Assumption fundraising board and Assumption parish key information contained in a confidential contract with Philanthropic Management Consultants, Inc. (PMC) — the company hired by the diocese on the recommendation of the parish. PMC was given a five-year contract and paid $20,000 a month to manage the first fundraising drive with the goal of raising $9.6 million.

Fabbro, who opened up the Diocese of London’s books to Mullins, urged diocesan personnel to co-operate with the respected Windsor lawyer and was himself interviewed extensively for the report, isn’t upset he has been held up in a negative light before parishioners and the citizens of Windsor.

“I am grateful for it,” Fabbro told The Catholic Register. “I wanted to get the information out there. In a way, I think we had to clear the air before we could move forward.”

Mullins will produce a second and final report this fall which charts a way forward for restoring Assumption Church. 

“We don’t want to lose the momentum that this initial report seems to have generated,” he said.

With publication of the report, one of the original donors to the first campaign, Al Quesnel, has already pledged $5 million to any future fundraising drive.

“We need major donations here for this to move forward. I think clearing of the air was essential,” said Fabbro.

Of all the mistakes made, signing an agreement that included strict confidentiality clauses was the worst, said the bishop.

“It was presented as, ‘If you want this fundraiser, this is what we require to do the job.’ That’s why we did it. But it was a mistake,” Fabbro said. “It led to mistrust and my constant complaint as this started was that we needed to be more transparent.”

Mullins’ interim report also calls it a mistake.

“It was a serious mistake for the diocese to enter into a ‘confidential’ commercial fundraising agreement because it prevented full accountability to the donors,” Mullins writes in the report.

As Fabbro became more involved in the campaign in 2011, he assumed the terms of the agreement with PMC had already been shared with the foundation board, which was set up locally to oversee funds for the restoration. It was only with the publication of Mullins’ report that board members and the bishop learned the source of years of misunderstanding and often bitter recriminations between the diocese and the board.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw that,” said retired deputy chief of the Windsor Police Service and Assumption Heritage Trust Foundation board member Jerome Branigan. “As soon as I saw it and read it, it answered so many questions for me. I was very happy to finally have the whole picture.”

Because board members had no clear picture of the terms of employment for PMC, they easily allowed the fundraising company to expand its role and its billings beyond the terms of the contract. The fundraisers began to also manage concurrent renovation efforts, said the report, which was not part of the original contract.

“PMC created three budgets called ‘Campaign Investment Budget,’ ‘Foundation Administration Budget,’ and ‘Restoration Program Budget.’ PMC allocated expenses between these three budgets. None of these expenses were deducted from PMC’s $20,000 monthly fee,” the report said.

Fabbro cancelled the contract with PMC in February 2012. Although the PMC role and billings expanded beyond the terms of the original contract, Branigan doesn’t think PMC’s actions amount to anything criminal.

“I advised the board as well as the bishop and (PMC principal) Mr. (John) Laframboise. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll have two detectives in here in 20 seconds that will take any complaint,’ ” said Branigan. “It’s my opinion that everyone was very satisfied that there was no criminality going on.”

LaFramboise would not comment on the report when contacted by The Register.

Mullins said he wasn’t looking for a bad guy when he took on the pro bono investigation.

“My purpose was really to give a clarification as to what went wrong,” Mullins said.

In his report, Mullins names the culture of secrecy in the Church as an underlying problem.

“Confidentiality concerns are imbedded in the culture of the Catholic Church,” Mullins writes. “Confidentiality is an incredibly important value. It can also be a serious weakness when it is applied in inappropriate circumstances.”

Fabbro believes Mullins has hit the nail on the head when it comes to the Church and secrecy and hopes to chart a new course in his diocese.

“We need to be transparent as a Church,” he said. “That’s my whole support for producing this report. It had to be independent. It wasn’t going to be something I was going to sort of control..”

Mullins gives Fabbro full marks for encouraging him to investigate and never flinching when the report was made public Aug. 12. The bishop read the report before it was released and immediately drafted a letter to Assumption parishioners, accepting responsibility for mistakes that were made.

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