CLEARWATER — When a 2-year-old member of his congregation lost her legs below the knee in a lawn mower accident, Pastor Dennis Reid of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clearwater stepped into the spotlight.
As Tampa Bay area residents hungered for news of the tragically maimed toddler, Ireland Nugent of Palm Harbor, Reid set up a Facebook page tracking her progress. He fielded reporters' phone calls. He stood beside Ireland's parents at news conferences and cracked jokes with the TV news crews he had invited.
But as Ireland has regained her strength and her medical bills begin to arrive, a rift appears to have opened between the Nugents and their affable minister over what the family says is his tight hold on close to $120,000 in donations for their daughter's medical care and associated expenses.
Ireland's father and grandfather told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that Reid had delayed for weeks the transfer of money sent to Trinity Presbyterian Church — the primary spot where Ireland's many well-wishers have been instructed to send donations — into a trust fund set up in Ireland's name. With Reid out of the country this week, other church leaders finally stepped in to get the family Ireland's money.
No one alleges that Reid is trying to manipulate the donations for financial gain. Instead, the Nugents say, they suspect Reid has delayed the transfer of the money in order to exercise control over the family as they begin to drift out of his influence with the immediate shock of Ireland's accident now behind them.
"I don't think he's trying to steal the money. I think he's a control freak," said Mike Del Corpo, Ireland's maternal grandfather. "He's going to dictate who's going to do what, how it's going to be done, and he's going to have the final word on it."
Jerry Nugent, Ireland's father, said the alienation from their pastor is an unwanted source of stress as they seek to reclaim their lives and help Ireland heal. He said the situation is made even more sensitive because Nicole Nugent, Ireland's mother, is employed as a teacher at the church.
"A major part of our support system has been damaged," Jerry Nugent said.
Ireland's Facebook page — a rich repository of images and notes documenting the girl's gauntlet of surgeries and ultimately successful recovery — has been deactivated, after a neighbor of the Nugents began using it to criticize the pastor.
Reid could not be reached for comment Monday. His June newsletter to his congregation states that he is currently in Guatemala on a trip "to challenge and equip the present-day generation … with leadership tools to bring about radical transforming change of the entire country."
In Reid's absence, church leaders convened a meeting on Monday night where they voted to begin the flow of money into Ireland's accounts.
"This was all a big misunderstanding," said Kathi Trautwein, associate pastor. "We opened an account specifically for Ireland Nugent. It was never mingled with church funds. The intent was always that the money would be for the benefit of her."
Trautwein said church officials had been waiting to release the money until they could review trust documents, which they didn't receive until Sunday. She said $105,000 will go to a trust for Ireland, while about $15,000 will go to support the expenses incurred by the Nugents as they support her recovery.
The checks will be written today, Trautwein said.
"We want to be open and transparent. We're not trying to hide anything. This was uncharted territory for us," she said.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.