MANCHESTER - The Rev. Monsignor Edward J. Arsenault was the public face of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester during the height of the clergy sexual abuse crisis more than a decade ago.
Arguably the most high-profile cleric in New Hampshire from 2002 through 2007, Arsenault handled the media, oversaw the diocese's administration and finances, and was the architect of its child protection and ministerial conduct policies.
So it was with more than a little irony that Catholics learned last week Arsenault, 51, is the target of a criminal investigation of possible inappropriate financial transactions involving diocesan funds and an internal review of a possible inappropriate adult relationship.
"That is why it is so surprising and so unbelievable that somebody who knows the rules, somebody who wrote the rules, is accused of violating them," said Donna Sytek, former House speaker, who serves on the New Hampshire Catholic Charities board of directors.
"I was astonished because (it involves) somebody who had been so involved in the process of setting out expectations for good conduct," added Sytek, who in 2002 served with Arsenault on a diocesan task force to craft a sexual misconduct policy.
"I saw him as a good and faithful priest. ... The allegations are totally not the Arsenault that I knew," Sytek said.
"This could be an unfounded allegation, so I don't want to prejudge the outcome," she added.
Catholics - ordained and lay - also worry the allegations could harm a diocese just beginning to rebound from a deeply wounding clergy sexual abuse scandal.
"Eleven years ago, we had a great crisis in this diocese. It pulls the scab off a little bit," said the Rev. C. Peter Dumont, a retired priest who served as a regional vicar.
"I just feel awful for the Diocese of Manchester. I just feel awful for the parishes where he served. I feel awful for the church," Dumont added.
"I've spoken to a few of my brother priests and they are hurt," he said.
He and other Catholics support Bishop Peter A. Libasci's attempts to convey as much information as possible while the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office conducts its investigation.
"Let the chips fall where they may," Dumont said of the probe.
Last Monday, the diocese announced it received allegations earlier this year regarding a "potentially inappropriate adult relationship" involving Arsenault. The allegations involve neither minors nor any other diocesan personnel. The diocese and the Attorney General's Office would not elaborate on the relationship.
In reviewing the claims, church officials discovered "evidence suggesting improper financial transactions ... involving diocesan funds," the diocese said in its May 6 statement.
The investigation also appears to involve Catholic Medical Center in Manchester and a contract it signed with Arsenault for consulting services in 2009. The contract was signed after Arsenault resigned from the CMC board of directors, where he served for 11 years as the bishop's delegate.
It was one of several high-ranking diocesan posts Arsenault resigned from in January 2009. The others were moderator of the curia, secretary for administration and the bishop's delegate for ministerial conduct. Arsenault also previously served as cabinet secretary for administration and as chancellor. He took over as head of St. Luke Institute in October 2009 and was appointed monsignor in 2010.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Arsenault said he was in a meeting and could not comment. He has not responded to requests for comments since.
Arsenault, a native of the Readville neighborhood of Boston, has a master's degree in theology, divinity and finance. Eight years after being ordained a priest, Arsenault moved into diocesan administration, where he soon earned a reputation as an adept administrator who introduced more professional standards to diocesan governance, several people who know him say.
"I could see that he had very strong capabilities in the area of finance and administration," said Ronald J. Rioux, who served two years on the CMC board of trustees with Arsenault and now is vice chancellor of the state's community college system.
"He always struck me as very smart, very capable. I always thought he was a very good priest," added Rioux, who also served on the diocesan finance council with Arsenault. Rioux recalls Arsenault as a "good homilist" when he celebrated Mass at his parish, St. Michael's in Exeter, as a visiting priest.
Dumont remembers Arsenault as someone who made a point of calling him on his birthday and ordination anniversary and to inquire about his aging mother's health.
"I know, firsthand, that he was extremely solicitous, kind, helpful to victims and to their relatives. ... I'm a witness," Dumont added.
But Bernie McDaid of Peabody, Mass., who was sexually abused as a child by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham at St. James Parish in Salem, Mass., recounted his two meetings with Arsenault in 2002 when he and other victims came to New Hampshire demanding Bishop John B. McCormack's resignation.
"I think he was very cold, aloof, distant, guarded, looking for a political position - he couldn't wait for McCormack to go out," said McDaid, who is founder of Survivors Voice, a Europe-based group representing clergy sexual abuse victims.
Others agree Arsenault's more professional style of running the diocese coupled with his sometimes curt mannerisms sowed dislike among some.
"He was not loved by everybody. But he was admired by several people who, maybe at some point, did not necessarily agree with him," Dumont said.
"Sometimes he wasn't pleasant. He was very straightforward. He didn't mince words. He was callous maybe, but he had many irons in the fire, as it were," he added.
Arsenault's greatest legacy likely will be his role in crafting child protection and ministerial conduct policies and helping reach a historic agreement with the state in 2002 in which the diocese admitted its failure to protect minors from abusive priests could have resulted in criminal convictions.
"I think that was a great service to the church," said a cleric who spoke on condition of anonymity.