Pennsylvania Bishop Suppresses Local Traditionalist Priestly Society

Catholic News Service [Scranton PA]
December 1, 2004

SCRANTON, Pa. (CNS) -- Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton has decreed the suppression of the Society of St. John, citing its financial instability, its failure to follow church law and the scandal caused by allegations of sexual molestation of minors by two of its founders.

The society has caused "grievous financial burdens for the diocese" that could amount to several million dollars, he said.

Priests who had left a schismatic traditionalist organization, the Society of St. Pius X, to return to the Catholic Church, established the Society of St. John in 1998. They received canonical authorization for the society as a public clerical association from now-retired Bishop James C. Timlin, Bishop Martino's predecessor in Scranton.

Like the schismatic group, the Society of St. John is devoted to celebrating the Mass in Latin according to the Tridentine rite, as it was celebrated throughout the Latin Church before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In 2002 Bishop Timlin suspended Fathers Carlos Urrutigoity and Eric Ensey from priestly ministry following an allegation that both sexually molested a student at St. Gregory's Academy in Moscow, Pa., where the priests lived before they obtained a property in Shohola. Father Urrutigoity was founding superior general of the society and Father Ensey was the chancellor.

The student and his parents filed a lawsuit in 2002 over the alleged abuse. They named as defendants the two priests, their society, Bishop Timlin, the diocese, the academy and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which runs the academy.

Additional court documents filed in that lawsuit this year included depositions by three other former students testifying that Father Urrutigoity sexually fondled them or slept with them when they were minors.

In his decree, dated Nov. 19 and published Nov. 25 in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Light, Bishop Martino said the society was being suppressed for several reasons.

"Six years after its erection the society has shown no progress in attaining its stated purposes. It is principally a debt-servicing operation and can be seen continuing as such for many years to come," he said.

He said the allegations of sexual misconduct "have caused a public scandal." Even if those claims are not true, there were actions by members of the society that "have given rise to the allegations and the resultant scandal," he said.

Explaining diocesan financial burdens created by "past financial decisions and conduct on the part of the society," Bishop Martino said, "The burdens include the diocese being named in a civil suit for over $1 million and the need for the diocese to secure a $2.6 million loan in August 2003 because of the society's indebtedness."

On failure to follow church law, he said, "The Society of St. John has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the bishop of Scranton in the fulfillment of Canon 319, Para. 1 and Para. 2." Those provisions of church law say that any public association canonically erected by a diocesan bishop must administer its goods under the direction of the bishop, give him an annual accounting of its administration, and give him "a faithful account of the expenditure of the offerings and alms which it has collected."

"As a result (of the society's failure to provide such accounting) the bishop of Scranton is at risk of being charged with failure to supervise if donors to the society judge that they have been deceived," Bishop Martino said.

A separate lawsuit filed against the society in 2002 alleges that it has raised more than $5 million from donors. The suit was filed by the corporation formed in 2000 to establish a Catholic liberal arts college under society auspices, a project the society subsequently abandoned.

The suit claims that although the society represented to donors that part of their contributions would go to building the college, little money was directed to that project. It seeks to collect for the college at least one-third of all funds raised by the society.

The lawsuit holds the diocese liable for the society's actions, saying the society acted as an agent of the diocese.

The Times Leader, Scranton's daily newspaper, reported last month that Father Ensey filed a Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy petition Aug. 8 at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilkes-Barre.

Citing the lawsuit against the diocese, diocesan spokeswoman Maria Orzel declined to answer any questions from Catholic News Service about the suppression decree, including questions about how the diocese will deal with the priests and seminarians of the suppressed society.

Since the society was not a religious order but only a public clerical association under the diocese, the priests are all Scranton diocesan priests.

In addition to Fathers Urrutigoity and Ensey, the society's Web site lists four other priests and eight seminarians or novices as members.

Three of the other priests were formerly with the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after he broke with Rome over liturgical reforms and the teachings of Vatican II. Two were seminarians under Father Urrutigoity when he taught at St. Pius X Seminary in Winona, Minn., and a third was a fellow professor at that seminary.

A large portion of the society's Web site is devoted to plans to establish a "city of the Society of St. John" in Pennsylvania -- a planned Catholic community of about 2,000 people with religious, educational, commercial, office and residential sectors. The plan calls for the entire town to be built within a 1,000-foot radius of the central church and plaza.


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