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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Wednesday, December 11, 2002  
Law's point man on affordable housing asks cardinal's resignation

Appropos of today's Howie Carr column lambasting Cardinal Law, and the corresponding commentary at Amy Welborn's on the cardinal's Statehouse lobbying for the poor, this interesting note:

Msgr. Michael Groden, archdiocesan development mogul and lead campaigner on subsidized housing, was among the priests signing a letter asking the cardinal to resign. The cardinal's real-estate wheeler-dealer, whose name jumped out from the letter this week, was profiled in the Globe four years ago. Here's that article:

The Boston Globe
December 19, 1998,

HEADLINE: Cleric seeks to balance secular avocation;
Is praised, criticized for real estate work;

BYLINE: By John Ellement and Richard S. Kindleberger, Globe Staff

Michael F. Groden has all the trappings of a successful real estate developer: a home in the city, a summer home in Scituate, and an office in downtown Boston where he wrestles with complex projects that require his political acumen, hard-nosed business sense, and engineering skills.

But Groden has another calling beyond his real estate profession: He is a Roman Catholic priest, a monsignor. And for 30 years he has led the Boston Archdiocese's effort to build subsidized housing in the state, making him a hero to many needy people. Over the years, however, he has gained another reputation in some real estate circles: as a man who accumulates enemies. Earlier this week a court ruling questioned the monsignor's integrity in a resounding fashion, giving new voice to his critics.

On Thursday, Judge Martha B. Sosman ruled that Groden cheated a Brookline developer in a real estate deal. The judge ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to pay the developer $3.4 million as compensation for Groden's deceit.

It was not the first time Groden's dealings have caused controversy.

"He's a wolf in priest's clothing," James Campano said yesterday. Campano is a leader of former residents of Boston's West End who blame Groden for their failure to get space for a museum and an office in a new building co-developed by the archdiocese in Lowell Square.

Other critics say Groden sometimes takes advantage of his clerical collar and operates by his own rules. He is considered something of a loner who relies on his contacts in powerful places to smooth out the rough spots instead of building coalitions with others.

Still, Groden, who is the archdiocese's urban planning director, has staunch defenders who view him as a relentless, forceful, advocate for affordable housing, who passionately believes he is doing the right thing.

"What stands out about Mike Groden is he has the community at heart," said Stephen Coyle, who ran the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1980s and had myriad dealings with the 58-year-old Groden. "That's in the man."

"He's a very skilled developer. He's an effective developer. He's an honest developer," added Coyle, who is now chief executive officer of the AFL-CIO Housing Trust in Washington.

Coyle's assessment is at odds with Sosman's findings, however. The Suffolk Superior Court judge ordered two corporations affiliated with the archdiocese to pay developer Norman A. Levenson at least $3.4 million in damages, citing Groden and former archdiocesan employee Gerald Pucillo for "unfair, immoral, unethical and unscrupulous acts" in their dealings with Levenson in a Fenway real estate deal in the early 1990s.

The judge ruled that Groden and Pucillo misled Levenson into thinking that they had agreed to jointly develop the property, while Groden and Pucillo went behind Levenson's back, bought the land for $500,000, and built a 123-unit elderly housing apartment building on Kilmarnock Street with federal grant money.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Groden said he will appeal the ruling but declined to discuss the specifics of the case. He defended his life's work of finding living space for those who can least afford it, even though, he said, it has not always made him popular.

"When you are building low-income housing in the suburbs, nobody wants to bring 'those people' to their community," Groden said. "It's not a popular field to be in, in most cases."

Yet Levenson's suit and another filed against Groden over the Kilmarnock Street property were about his business practices, not his good intentions.

In the second suit, developer Michael Capizzi, who had planned in the late 1980s to buy the Fenway parcel and build condominiums on it, said Groden used his influence at the BRA to kill city approval of the plan. Groden denied influencing the BRA and, after Capizzi acknowledged that he based his belief about Groden solely on a conversation with a man at a political fund-raiser, a judge in 1996 threw out the lawsuit.

A native of Belmont and the son of a doctor, Groden entered the priesthood in 1965 after attending St. John's Seminary and Boston College. While assigned to St. Joseph's parish in Roxbury in the 1960s, he worked to help restore the housing stock in that neighborhood.

"It was on-the-job training," he said.

Following a stint at the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, Groden was put in charge of the archdiocese's planning office, where he has been since 1968. He also helps with pastoral duties at St. Cecilia's Church, near his Boston residence.

Throughout his career, Groden has overseen projects that have produced 3,000 units of low-cost housing. His efforts have not always borne fruit. Two years ago he tried to build 700 units of new and rehabilitated housing in East Boston. The project, which would have involved moving some tenants of the Maverick Square housing development into choice waterfront locations, stalled after the community raised objections and the Menino administration withdrew support.

Groden's critics said they do not question the need for subsidized housing, nor do they disapprove of the archdiocese's involvement in development plans. They object to what they say is the way Groden bends the rules while espousing noble goals.

"You can do housing. Housing is being done all the time," said Boston lawyer Edward J. Lonergan, who had a falling out with Groden in 1995 over not getting paid for a case he handled for the planning office after he had done two major cases for free. "That doesn't mean that anything you do is justified because you say you are trying to help the needy."

Groden said he would not get into a point-counterpoint discussion with his critics. But he was clear that Sosman's ruling will not change the way he conducts his business affairs. "I have always treasured my word, and I think it's quite good," he said. He said only that "time will tell" whether others react to him differently following the judge's ruling.

He said he sees no conflict between his vocation as a priest and his avocation as a nonprofit developer.

"In the present, contemporary church, you can point to a number of people who were priests and who had credibility, competence, and had made contributions in the secular field," he said. "In my judgment, there is no contradiction."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, 'He's a wolf in priest's clothing.' JAMES CAMPANO Leader of former West End residents' group, on Monsignor Michael F. Groden (above).


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