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In Napa church wrongful termination suit, judge rules against former office manager

St. Apollinaris Catholic Church in Napa. (stapollinarisparish.org)

MARTIN ESPINOZA,

A Sonoma County Superior Court judge has ruled against a former parish office manager at St. Apollinaris Church in Napa who claimed she was fired after calling attention to the misuse of church funds.

In a tentative ruling issued earlier this month, Judge Allan Hardcastle found that Jo Savage, a 28-year employee of St. Apollinaris, had failed to show that her termination on May 7, 2015, was a retaliatory response to allegations she made against St. Apollinaris’ Father William Donahue.

The day before her termination, Savage met with Monsignor Daniel Whelton, the vicar of priests for the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, of which the Napa parish is a member. But Hardcastle said attorneys for Savage could not show a “causal link” between the meeting and the firing.

“There was no evidence or testimony indicating Father Donahue had knowledge of any of Plaintiff Savage’s complaints or concerns, which she had raised with others in the Diocese,” wrote Hardcastle.

Church officials, in a countersuit, accused Savage of gross negligence in caring for parish accounts. They said Savage was responsible for causing tax penalties of $70,000 and that she paid her personal credit card with parish funds without explanation.

The church alleged that Savage failed to require documents from her daughter in support of about $270,000 in expenses for the youth ministry.

For her part, Savage claimed that Donahue remodeled certain areas of the rectory without the “proper permits and without using a licensed or certified contractor,” violating “fire, building and/or safety codes” and hiring an unqualified principal for the parish school, according to Hardcastle’s ruling.

But Hardcastle found that Savage was unable to meet the burden of proof required by the state’s whistle-blower statute and that Donahue “had clear and convincing legitimate business reasons for terminating Plaintiff’s Savage’s employment.” Severe differences between Savage and Donahue combined with Savage’s “work performance led to her termination,” Hardcastle wrote.

Adrienne Moran, attorney for the diocese and a partner with Shapiro, Galvin, Shapiro & Moran, said Thursday she was pleased with the court’s tentative finding. Moran said Hardcastle essentially agreed with Donahue’s justification for terminating Savage.

“We’re very pleased with the tentative decision,” Moran said. “Father Donahue took his role as a steward of the parishioners’ funds very seriously, and we’re pleased that the court supported Father Donahue’s commitment to fiscal responsibility.”

Hardcastle also rejected Savage’s complaint that she had been defamed by rumors spread by Donahue that she had been embezzling funds from the parish. The judge said the origin of rumors could not be traced back to Donahue.

An attorney for Savage played down Hardcastle’s tentative ruling.

“The Court has issued a tentative ruling, which is not a final judgment or verdict in this case,” Robert Flummerfelt, Savage’s attorney. “The time period to object to said ruling has not yet expired and not all issues were addressed in the tentative ruling.”