Booted Clerics Regroup
By Chris Birk
The Times-Tribune [Scranton PA]
March 4, 2006
The controversial Society of St. John, shut down by the Diocese of Scranton last year, claims to be back in the good graces of a Catholic diocese.
Good enough, in fact, to set up shop as an official organization.
A letter on the group's Web site claims the society has been approved as a public association of the faithful in the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, who presides over the diocese's more than 500,000 Catholics, is credited with establishing a spot for the society.
"We are now, once again, officially approved by the church and can operate in an official capacity on behalf of the church," the letter, written by Brother Anthony Myers, reads in part. "The good bishop has a great love for the traditional liturgy, and thinks that the Society of St. John will be a happy influence in his diocese."
Efforts to reach representatives of the diocese in Paraguay and the Society of St. John were unsuccessful.
The Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino, bishop of Scranton, suppressed the society in November 2004 after a six-year run marked by a lingering sexual abuse lawsuit and mounting financial problems.
The society had sought to create a traditionalist Catholic haven in Pike County centered on education, liturgy and communal worship. But Bishop Martino cited steep financial burdens and "acts of commission and omission" regarding sexual abuse allegations in issuing his decree.
The Society of St. John claims to have spent the past months operating as a civil, not-for-profit corporation after its formal suppression.
Under Catholic canon law, a diocesan bishop has the authority to erect — and eradicate — a public association of the faithful, typically groups composed of either clerics, lay people or a mix of the two.
But that notion of local authority makes the society's new claim possible. The Society of St. John, as it existed in Northeastern Pennsylvania, is defunct. But the members could regroup somewhere else with the permission of a diocesan bishop, according to the Diocese of Scranton.
"Its former members would not, however, simply because of the suppression, be prohibited from organizing anew in a given location if the necessary permissions to do so were obtained from appropriate ecclesial authorities," according to the Diocese of Scranton, which answered a list of questions sent by e-mail.
Charles M. Wilson, whose Texas-based Saint Joseph Foundation provides advice and assistance to Catholics with church law issues, agrees. He said it's similar to dissolving a corporation in one state and relocating to another.
"This is roughly what they are doing here, or attempting to do here," said Mr. Wilson. "This whole thing strikes me as very suspect. It's in that diocese of Paraguay that the real answer lies."
A relentless critic of the society, Dr. Jeffrey Bond said it's possible Brother Myers and other laymen connected with the society could have permission to start a new organization. But the priests of the former society don't have permission from the Scranton diocese to transfer jurisdictions, he said via e-mail.
"The SSJ was suppressed, and the former SSJ priests do not have faculties to operate in Paraguay or anywhere else," wrote Dr. Bond, who was hired by the society to run its proposed Catholic college but later cut ties with the group.
The Diocese of Scranton said the society's priests are still bound to directives issued by Bishop Martino upon the society's suppression. Among them was a prohibition against raising money for pious purposes. The priests are subject to disciplinary measures allowed by the church to "a diocesan bishop relative to his clergy," according to the diocese.
Four priests previously part of the Society of St. John — including two accused of sexually molesting a St. Gregory's Academy student — are listed as "not members but honored friends of the society," according to a now-deleted page on the group's Web site.
One of those two accused priests, the Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity, is named as the society's spiritual advisor.
The society's members who were never priests — like Brother Myers — appear to be in the clear.
Dr. Bond called the distinction a "legal nicety," adding that: "Those of you who have followed the SSJ scandal will not be surprised by their use of murky rhetoric designed to bamboozle unsuspecting Catholic donors."
It's also unclear exactly where the society members are. Earlier messages on the group's Web site allude to a chapel in Paraguay. A letter from January notes the weather in the southern hemisphere — and says their welcoming bishop celebrated a High Mass in their chapel during Advent.
Yet, the organization lists a P.O. Box address in Maple Hill, Kan. — and a phone number in the 570 area code.
The small Kansas town, about 25 miles from the state capital Topeka, is home to the St. John Vianney Latin Mass Community. The traditional church community is part of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the same international Catholic organization that runs St. Gregory's Academy in Elmhurst.
St. Gregory's is where the Society of St. John first set up its religious community in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 1997.
Reached Friday afternoon, a priest at St. John Vianney said the Society of St. John was not in any way associated with the community, which is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Kansas City. A diocesan official in Kansas City said the Society of St. John has not contacted the archdiocese, nor has it been welcomed into diocesan borders.
A year after being welcomed into Northeastern Pennsylvania, the society was officially recognized by the Diocese of Scranton.
In March 2002, a former St. Gregory's student filed a John Doe civil suit in U.S. District Court against Father Urrutigoity and the Rev. Eric Ensey. The lawsuit named the diocese, former Bishop James C. Timlin and others for failing to scrutinize the priests or adequately monitor their activities.
The parties settled the suit last May for $380,000. The Society of St. John sold its 1,000-acre property in Pike County a day later.
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