The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity
By Grant Gallicho
August 14, 2014
In early July the Vatican announced that it would send investigators to the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. The apostolic visitation was prompted by complaints from local bishops and laypeople following news reports that an Argentine priest accused of molesting high-school students in Pennsylvania had been welcomed into Ciudad del Este by Bishop Rogelio Livieres—and promoted to vicar general.
Weeks later, the Vatican revealed that it had removed Fr. Urrutigoity from his position as vicar general and—in an unusual step—barred Bishop Livieres from ordaining anyone for the time being. (A final decision will be made after the Vatican finishes studying the investigators’ report.) In response, the Diocese of Ciudad del Este published a long, forceful defense of Urrutigoity and Livieres. The statement, posted to the diocese’s website, claims that Urrutigoity is innocent, that he and the bishop have been the victim of a smear campaign, that his previous bishop approved his transfer to Paraguay, and that he came with the recommendation of several cardinals—including Joseph Ratzinger.
In a 2002 federal lawsuit, a plaintiff claimed that Urrutigoity and another priest, Eric Ensey, had molested him under the guise of “spiritual direction.” He accused Ensey of abusing him while he was a high-school student in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he accused Urrutigoity of sexual misconduct after he graduated and was preparing for the priesthood. (No criminal charges were filed because the statute of limitations had run.) In addition to the abuse accusations, depositions and affidavits taken in connection with the suit allege that the priests often supplied alcohol to underage boys and regularly shared their beds with them. The bishop at the time, James Timlin, eventually suspended both clerics, and the diocese eventually settled out of court for about four hundred thousand dollars. The case rocked the diocese for years, not only because of the plaintiff’s shocking allegations, but also because the accused priests were not local to Scranton. Bishop Timlin had invited them in.
A review of hundreds of pages of court documents—including private correspondence, depositions, and affidavits—makes it clear that the Urrutigoity case is one of the most complicated to emerge during the 2002 wave of sexual-abuse scandals. It spans three decades, two continents, three countries, and two states. It involves multiple bishops—some schismatic—several dioceses, and numerous high-ranking Vatican officials. The priest’s rise to prominence tracks closely with the church’s growing awareness of the gravity of clerical sexual abuse. Accusations of misconduct have followed him from Argentina to Pennsylvania. That’s what makes his reappearance in Ciudad del Este—where the bishop had him helping with seminary formation before promoting him to vicar general—so difficult to understand. How could a Catholic priest with such a history end up as second in command of a diocese—in 2014?
Carlos Urrutigoity’s route to Ciudad del Este was remarkably circuitous. His clerical career began in La Reja, Argentina, where he entered a seminary run by the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist organization that rejects the Second Vatican Council and practices the unreformed Latin Mass. Urrutigoity was kicked out when it was alleged that he had made sexual advances on a fellow seminarian, according to court documents. He was given a second chance at another SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota, where he was ordained in the early 1990s by Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops illicitly ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988—an act that brought automatic excommunication from the Catholic Church.
(As part of his failed effort to bring the SSPX back into full communion with Rome, Benedict XVI lifted the SSPX bishops’ excommunications in 2009. Soon after, video surfaced in which Williamson denied that the Nazis had used gas chambers, and claimed no more than three hundred thousand Jews died in the Shoah. He was eventually ejected from the SSPX.)
By 1997, Urrutigoity was teaching at the Winona seminary. He had developed quite a following among priests and seminarians, a following that Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the SSPX, would later call “strange” and “abnormal.” Urrutigoity hatched a plan to create a society within the SSPX that would espouse more rigorous spiritual practices. They would call themselves the Society of St. John. But when that plan was discovered by Williamson in May '97, the bishop was not pleased, and he expelled Urrutigoity from the seminary. He didn’t leave alone.
Within weeks, Urrutigoity and a handful of other former members of SSPX—including Eric Ensey—had secured a meeting with James Timlin, then bishop of Scranton. They told the bishop that they were “seeking to return to the true church,” according to a 2007 chronology prepared by James Earley, then chancellor of the Diocese of Scranton. Timlin was persuaded.
That was June 1997. On September 15, Timlin wrote to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which was responsible for normalizing relations with SSPX members and other traditionalists. Benedict XVI tasked the commission with supervising the application of his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which granted permission for wider use of the old Latin Mass (the “extraordinary form,” as it’s now called). Timlin sought the commission’s advice about restoring Society of St. John priests and deacons to full communion with Rome. Just seven days later “the censures the former members of the SSPX had incurred by virtue of receiving the sacrament of holy orders illicitly were lifted,” according to Earley's chronology. They were Catholic again.
Society of St. John members took up residence in an unused wing of St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a small traditionalist group in communion with the Holy See. Members exclusively celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass. The Fraternity of St. Peter established its North American headquarters in Scranton in 1992, while Timlin was bishop. Ensey became chaplain of St. Gregory’s, and other Society of St. John members taught classes.
On May 24, 1998, less than a year after the former members of SSPX arrived seeking to return to the Catholic Church, Bishop Timlin established the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” a designation granting them certain rights under canon law. The bishop held a series of meetings with members of the society, now officially led by Urrutigoity, to work out the organization’s mission. Their ambition was to establish a community for Catholics committed to the rites of the 1962 Roman Missal—that is, the unreformed Latin rites—a Catholic liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. Timlin approved their plan, even though he had not run background checks on any Society of St. John members, nor had he reviewed their seminary formation records.
If he had, perhaps he would have been spared the surprise of reading a February 1999 letter from Bishop Fellay, superior general of the SSPX, warning him that Urrutigoity had approached the bed of a Winona seminarian named Matthew Selinger twice “for obvious dishonest acts.” Fellay informed Timlin that Urrutigoity was “accused of a similar action” in Argentina—“with a seminarian who is now a member of the Society of St. John.” But what disturbed Fellay the most was that Urrutigoity “had a strange, abnormal influence on the seminarians and priests, whom he seemed to attach to his brilliant, charismatic personality.” One of the reasons Fellay rejected Urrutigoity’s proposal to establish the Society of St. John within SSPX, he explained, was this “guru-like attachment between the disciples and their leader.” If Timlin wanted to investigate further, “we are at your disposal,” Fellay wrote, promising that Selinger was “ready to state under oath the facts mentioned above.” Eventually Salinger would.
Urrutigoity met with Timlin shortly thereafter, and denied Fellay’s claims. About five months later, Timlin sent three people to interview Selinger: Auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty, then-Vicar General Fr. Joseph Kopacz, and a lay attorney for the diocese, Francis X. O’Connor. In a report of that meeting written for Timlin, the three concluded, “All the auditors are inclined to believe Matthew Selinger,” according to a backgrounder prepared by the diocese’s Internal Review Board in 2002. Yet, when the IRB considered the case in 1999, it did not recommend suspending Urrutigoity. “Not only does the accused priest deny the allegation, but the other parties made points which seem to lessen the force of much that was reported by the complainant,” according to the minutes of a 1999 IRB meeting. “It is Bishop Timlin’s mind that without further knowledge, at present not available, a conclusion in this instance cannot be reached.” The minutes do not question the credibility of Selinger’s claims.
He detailed those claims four years later in sworn testimony given in connection with the 2002 lawsuit. During that deposition, Selinger recounted his relationship with Urrutigoity. The priest, then a teacher at the seminary, was Selinger’s spiritual director and confessor. Asked how the Society of St. John got started, Selinger said, “they wanted saints, and they wanted them now, and pretty much an elite.”
The first time he met Urrutigoity, Selinger said, the priest suggested he and another seminarian swim with him in the nude.
One year Selinger gave up meat for Lent. “I got constipated.” He asked Urrutigoity to help him get Metamucil, but the priest returned with suppositories. Never having seen one before, Selinger attempted to take it orally. Urrutigoity corrected him. When Selinger started heading toward the bathroom, Urrutigoity asked, “What are you doing?” Selinger explained that he was going to use the suppository in private, but Urrutigoity persisted. “What, I’m not you’re friend?” Selinger replied that he didn’t “want [his friends] watching him” in the bathroom. “That’s part of your pride, Matt,” Urrutigoity told him. According to Selinger, the priest said that because the seminarian came from “a rough background” and depended on his "strength to do everything,” the priest had to “break” Selinger's “pride” in order to “let God into [his] heart.” Selinger went to the bathroom anyway. “He got real mad at me.”
Urrutigoity placed a high value on loyalty, according to Selinger. “He had this idea that when you’re buddies, you do everything for each other.... So much so, friendship in this supernatural realm, we’re friends, you know, we are the same faith and everything, it’s deeper.” Because both of them were Catholic, Urrutigoity believed that “we were close spiritually,” Selinger continued. “We were one.” After all, “if two people become one [in marriage], why can’t two friends become one?” That sentiment was evident in Urrutigoity’s screen saver, which Selinger said displayed the following quote from Scripture: Ego et Pater unum sumus. I and the Father are one.
On a few occasions, Urrutigoity would go home with Selinger during breaks. “He was intrigued with the idea that I grew up with three brothers,” Selinger said. “He asked me where we all slept.” The Selingers didn’t have much money, “so we all slept in the same bed.”
Sleeping arrangements became an issue after Urrutigoity was expelled from the Winona seminary. He and the men who left with him—including Selinger—ended up staying at the home of one of Urrutigoity’s friends. At first, according to Selinger, there were enough beds. But then more people showed up, and Urrutigoity suggested the two bunk together.
By that point Selinger had grown disaffected. He was not happy about the artwork in the house. The images of nude women were too tempting. More troubling, he didn’t see evidence of the spiritual rigorism Urrutigoity said motivated him to create the Society of St. John. “No one was wearing a cassock,” and “I didn’t see anyone praying the breviary.” Nor did he see anyone praying the rosary. “But the whole point of everything that we were doing was to do things more and do it in communion,” Selinger said. So when Urrutigoity offered to share a bed with Selinger to make room for the new guests, he was not inclined to accept. He would sleep on the floor instead, as a sacrifice, he told Urrutigoity, hoping the priest would be satisfied. He was, for the moment.
Later that night, Selinger said, he awoke to find Urrutigoity’s hand on his penis. Shocked, and torn between the urge to strike the priest and the fear of harming a man of the cloth—“my dad once told me a guy hit a priest and his arm was frozen forever”—Selinger rolled over on his side, pretending not to notice. Worried that Urrutigoity would try again the following night, Selinger tried to take naps during the day so he could stay awake.
Urrutigoity approached Selinger’s bed again that night, “obviously to do what he did the night before,” but this time Selinger played it off, asking Urrutigoity whether he was having trouble sleeping. The cleric claimed that he was “having temptations in my sleep, dreams of girls” and wanted to pray at Selinger’s bedside, according to Selinger. A few days later, Selinger confronted Urrutigoity, said the priest needed psychological help, and left the Society of St. John to return to his family.
Almost immediately, Selinger’s father knew something was wrong. Eventually he told his father what had happened. His father phoned Fr. Eric Ensey, who in turn called Selinger and invited him to California. It was there that Selinger shared with Ensey what had happened with Urrutigoity, according to Selinger’s testimony. Selinger said that Ensey promised to confront Urrutigoity. A couple of weeks later, Selinger said, Ensey reported to him that Urrutigoity had “admitted it.”
It was June 1998—a year after the Society of St. John convinced Bishop Timlin to invite them into the Diocese of Scranton. As the lawyer questioning Selinger noted, in March '99 Ensey wrote to Timlin claiming that “Urrutigoity himself has always denied having perpetrated any of the improprieties with which he has been charged, and ever with the greatest fidelity to his role as Matthew’s spiritual director and friend.”
As time went on, Selinger wondered why Ensey hadn’t left Scranton. So he asked. Ensey said that “Fr. U. said I [Seinger] was sick and he was doing that [grabbing his penis] because he can tell if you’re aroused, you’re sick, or like, if you look at someone’s tongue and it’s all cracked then there’s something wrong in the soul,” according to Selinger. He explained that it wasn’t unusual for Urrutigoity to claim such expertise: “He said he would give Communion and look at people’s tongues and tell if that person was suffering more than the next person.” Selinger stopped taking Ensey’s calls.
But in summer 2003, Ensey contacted Selinger with what sounded like an urgent request. He wanted to meet in person. He warned Selinger that he might be subpoenaed in a pending lawsuit. He admitted that he was accused of molesting a boy, Selinger testified, but swore he was innocent. Ensey was concerned that if Selibger testified against Urrutigoity, it would “bury” Ensey too. “Then he said to me, ‘You know, if they subpoena you, you can’t get out of it. Now, you can leave the country.” But by that time Selinger was married with children. Then, Selinger testified, Ensey suggested that he lie. “You know I don’t lie,” Selinger replied. Finally, Ensey floated the possibility of Selinger talking to his lawyer. “He’s a good guy,” Selinger recalled him saying. “He’s got strong ties to the mafia.”
Selinger interpreted that as a threat, so he decided to accept Ensey’s offer to speak with the attorney. But, he testified, the lawyer never contacted him. And he never spoke with Ensey again.
Selinger said that he shared all that information with the auditors from the Diocese of Scranton, that they said they believed him. He also testified that he told Bishop Timlin about Urrutigoity in writing. (I haven’t seen that letter.) “I don’t want anything,” Selinger said. No money. No compensation of any kind. But he was upset when he learned that the diocese had taken Urrutigoity’s word over his:
This guy goes to Argentina, gets accused, and he says, "I didn’t do it," and everybody says "OK." Then he goes to the United States, and I know of two people and then, you know, including myself, in the seminary, and he’s accused, and he says, "I didn’t do it." Then he goes to Scranton and he’s touching boys around when they’re sleeping…. They’re saying, "He touched me," and he’s saying he didn’t do it. And everybody is saying, "OK." So, yeah I’m mad that he keeps doing it and people keep getting it done to them and everybody just says, "OK." Nothing gets done.
Selinger’s deposition was given on October 28, 2003. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but just a few weeks earlier, Scranton had received a new bishop, Joseph Martino, and before long he would make it his business to get something done.