The Pillar [Washington DC]
December 1, 2023
By Michelle La Rosa and JD Flynn
A Milwaukee priest who maintained an allegedly romantic public relationship with a layman was placed on administrative leave Friday, while a formal canonical investigation into his conduct is initiated.
The move comes one day after The Pillar published a report about Milwaukee judicial vicar Fr. Mark Payne, who in 2022 hired as a parish schoolteacher a man with whom he had shared a condo for decades.
Earlier this week, the Milwaukee archdiocese told The Pillar that it had given the priest verbal warnings about his “lifestyle,” but did not indicate that it planned to initiate canonical investigations into the priest’s conduct, or to use other canonical mechanisms to address the concerns.
A spokesperson for Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee told The Pillar Wednesday that archdiocesan officials had “spoken with Fr. Payne about the necessity for clergy to live a lifestyle that avoids scandal and is faithful to their promises of ordination,” adding that, “he has given assurances that he is faithful to his priestly vows and we have given him the opportunity to correct any perception that his lifestyle is inconsistent with the life of a priest.”
But on Dec. 1, the archdiocese sent to parishioners a statement from Father Nathan Reesman, vicar for clergy of the archdiocese, which said that Payne had been placed on immediate administrative leave, both from his role as judicial vicar, and as pastor of two local parishes.
The statement, also sent to The Pillar, announced that Archbishop Listecki will be “initiating a formal canonical investigation of the situation.”
Reesman wrote that The Pillar’s Nov. 30 report had “raised questions about the fidelity of Father Mark to his promises as a priest, and also about the response of the Archdiocese to our knowledge of the situation.”
While concerns and social media posts were raised to the archdiocese in August, officials had not yet initiated a formal “preliminary investigation” into the extent of Payne’s public relationship, as canon law requires when dioceses are presented with the credible possibility of canonical crimes.
In its Dec. 1 statement, the archdiocese said it had instead shared concerns raised about his lifestyle with Payne, who “assured us that he is faithful to his priestly vows and that the information painted a misleading picture of the situation.”
“We offered him the opportunity to clear up any possible misunderstandings before taking the step of initiating a formal investigation.”
“The investigation will be conducted by an expert from another diocese to ensure maximum objectivity. During Father Payne’s administrative leave and the investigation, an administrator will be appointed to serve the parishes, and an acting Judicial Vicar will be appointed to ensure all necessary duties are handled in his absence. All of these steps are necessary to arrive at the most fair and accurate analysis of the situation for all involved,” the archdiocese said Dec. 1.
In June 2022, Payne was appointed judicial vicar — a senior-ranking leadership position in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee — and the pastor of two parishes north of the city: St. Monica in Whitefish Bay, and St. Eugene in Fox Point.
Four months later, Payne announced to families at St. Monica’s School that he had hired as a middle school theology teacher a man who “comes to us with a degree in theology, high school teaching experience, and was in formation to join the Jesuit order.”
The priest did not mention that he and the man had owned a condo together since 2003, or that the man had for years depicted them as a romantic couple in publicly accessible social media postings reviewed by The Pillar: recounting their vacations together — including one with “another couple” — their commemoration of holidays, their efforts to redecorate their condo, and posting photos of the pair at Pride events and gay bars and clubs, both in Milwaukee and in other parts of the world.
In addition to raising questions about the possibility that the priest violated canonical norms regarding personal conduct, the hiring would also seem to overstock the “Code of Ethical Standards for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” which establishes as a possible conflict of interest for Church leaders “employing … friends or relatives.”
In 2018, the man was arrested for drunk driving and possession of cocaine. When the man pled guilty to the drunk driving charge, the possession charge was dropped, and he was sentenced to a brief stay in jail, community service, and a suspended driver’s license.
In April 2023, Payne announced that the individual was “resigning from his teaching position…in order to dedicate more time to caring for his family.”
The move to initiate a canonical investigation into Payne’s conduct comes as Pope Francis has in recent years called diocesan bishops to use canonical mechanisms to address potential moral failings and the prospect of scandal — and that their reluctance had compounded both sin and dysfunction in the Church.
“In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions. This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies,” the pope wrote in Pascite gregem Dei.
“This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful,” Francis added.
“For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties. Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully.”
In its Dec. 1 statement, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee asked for prayer.
“Please pray for the next steps in this situation, for Father Payne, for his parish communities, and for all those impacted by this information.”