The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (III)

This is the third in a series of posts about the Urrutigoity case. Read part one here, and part two here.

Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity knew it would be a tough sell. He wanted Jeffrey Bond to help build his dreamed-of Catholic liberal-arts college. Bond had moved to Shohola, Pennsylvania, in 1999 to be near the Society of St. John, soon after it had acquired property there. But he already had a job teaching at a New Jersey high school. And Urrutigoity’s offer was hardly a no-brainer. It’s hard enough to run a college that already has buildings and students. The College of St. Justin Martyr, as it would be called, had neither.

Urrutigoity assured Bond that the Society would provide the necessary funds—by covering tuition for its members and by raising money for the college until it could stand on its own, according to sworn testimony Bond would later give. (A chronology prepared by the SSJ claimed Urrutigoity “warned” Bond about the group’s “difficult financial position.”) Nevertheless, Bond, who had taught at Thomas Aquinas College, a conservative great-books school in California, found the idea intriguing. He would develop the school’s theoretical framework, hire its faculty, and oversee its educational mission—all under the spiritual care of priests committed to the “restoration of the traditional Catholic liturgy and civilization,” as a Society of St. John mailer put it. So Bond took the job. His career with the SSJ began on April 1, 2000. It would be a short honeymoon.

Within months it would become clear to Bond that Urrutigoity was using the college to raise money in order to service the Society of St. John’s mounting debt. That financial burden—along with later accusations of clergy misconduct—would doom whatever chance the college had to survive, and would eventually help sink the Society itself, for a time.

Bond and a few others incorporated the college separately in August 2000. The idea was to start by teaching SSJ novices, eventually developing the institution into a four-year college open to the public. By mid-October, SSJ postulants began taking a full course load taught by seven professors, including Nestor Sequeiros, who was brought over from Argentina to teach Latin. His reputation preceded him.

“Long before Mr. Sequeiros arrived…we had heard Society members speak of his awesome abilities, penetrating intellect, and academic prowess,” according to a 2001 letter Bond wrote (with Fr. Richard Munkelt) to auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty of Scranton. He was so smart, rumor had it, that he had two PhDs. Sequeiros, who had taught Urrutigoity years before, was supposedly working on an “entirely new method of teaching Latin based on the liturgy” that would restore the language to “the center of Catholic life and thereby launch the Society into renown and glory,” Bond and Munkelt wrote. "Imagine our surprise," the letter continued, when Sequeiros arrived and proved “unable to communicate effectively in English.”

As the school year went on, Bond inveighed upon Sequeiros to improve his English. But he refused, according to Bond and Munkelt’s letter. Adding insult to injury, the man was paid more than anyone else at the SSJ. His salary was $65,000, and he was given free room and board, free use of a car, and free airfare to Argentina. When Fr. Munkelt, then an SSJ member and vice president of the college, complained to Urrutigoity, he replied, “We can spend our money any way we like,” according to the letter. Later Bond and Munkelt were told that even if Sequeiros failed to do his job he would still be paid—because he was one of the founders of the Society of St. John.

By January, most of the college’s students had left the Society altogether. Bond stopped teaching the few who remained so he could focus on fundraising. That too would prove frustrating. The SSJ updated supporters and potential donors in a regular newsletter called the Epistle. They always concluded with a request for donations—and usually mentioned the need to build a college. But “Urrutigoity refused…to allow us to make a direct appeal for money for the college,” Bond and Munkelt wrote. “We were not even allowed to attach an envelope to the Epistle that would have allowed supporters to send money directly to the college.”

After much prodding, Urrutigoity eventually allowed Bond to place an appeal letter in the February 2001 Epistle. But his permission came with a catch. If the SSJ’s income for that month reflected a loss, the college would have to return any money it had received through the appeal.

If Bond couldn’t raise money through the Society’s mailings, he thought he’d try his own. But when he sought access to the SSJ’s database of donors, he was “never denied, but always put off,” he and Munkelt wrote. Before long, “we became convinced that the Society had no intention of sharing its resources with the college.” At a May 2001 meeting with SSJ representatives, Bond informed them that the Society and the college needed to “go their separate ways.” Urrutigoity announced that Bond’s salary would no longer be covered by the SSJ—and that the college would have to be financially independent by June, according to Bond and Munkelt.

At the same time, Bond began to question Urrutigoity’s commitment to his postulants’ education. “On one occasion,” Bond and Munkelt wrote, “students were even required to miss class in order to move mattresses.” On others, they were taken out of class to “undertake the ever-increasing maintenance and fundraising efforts that have become the hallmark of the Society’s work.” The extracurricular demands became so great that class size dwindled to two or three students.

At an August 16 meeting, Bond and Munkelt again told Urrutigoity that they wanted the college to be completely separate from the Society of St. John (by this point Munkelt had informed Urrutigoity that he wanted out of the SSJ). The Society, Bond and Munkelt explained, had become a hindrance to the college’s fundraising efforts. (A chronology prepared by the SSJ alleged that the Bond and Munkelt wanted to approach potential donors who disagreed with the liturgical position of the Society—the idea being that the college would be stricter in its practice of the old Latin Mass. Bond later denied that.) At that point, according to Bond and Munkelt, they were offered access to the SSJ database. But they weren’t buying it. They felt Urrutigoity had “strung us along…in order to keep us within the fold of the Society so that the Society could continue to advertise the College for its own desperate financial needs.”

If that wasn’t enough to persuade Bond that his relationship with the Society of St. John had run its course, what he’d learn three days later would do the trick.

On August 19, 2001, Bond was visited by Alan Hicks, then headmaster of St. Gregory’s Academy, the boarding school where SSJ members had lived and taught before moving to the Shohola property. Hicks reported “Urrutigoity’s bizarre occasional practice of sleeping with young men, both individually and in groups within his private chambers,” Bond and Munkelt wrote to auxiliary Bishop Dougherty. To their knowledge, no one had alleged that the practice was “of a sexual nature,” but Bond and Munkelt wanted the bishop to know how inappropriate this was, especially given the media coverage of clergy accused of misconduct. They also told Dougherty that Hicks informed them of Urrutigoity’s “pet theory” of friendship, in which sleeping together supposedly fosters intimacy and loyalty. This was “even more disturbing,” Bond and Munkelt wrote, because Urrutigoity had supplied underage boys with alcohol and tobacco. (At the time, Urrutigoity was in his early to mid-thirties.)

“Mr. Hicks’s testimony establishes a pattern of aberrant behavior on the part of Rev. Urrutigoity that draws into question his concern for the good of the young men” under his care—boys who "respond with alacrity to his charisma and degrading strategy of presenting himself as their peer,” Bond and Munkelt wrote. Students felt free to curse in Urrutigoity’s presence, and “even to press their backsides against him in order to pass wind upon him,” according to the letter. Hicks said that Urrutigoity had pillow fights with the boys “while he and they are dressed only in their underwear,” Bond and Munkelt wrote. At that time, Bond learned that an abuse lawsuit was pending against Urrutigoity and the Society of St. John, he later wrote in a widely distributed e-mail.

In a 2012 interview Hicks posted to a website he created, he denied knowing anything about Urrutigoity supplying students with alcohol or tobacco, and claimed that he would have thrown out any priest he believed had slept with students. Hicks had been accused of misfeasance for not putting a stop to the alleged misdeeds. The website also contains letters of support for Hicks’s leadership at St. Gregory’s.

Urrutigoity has denied the accusations under oath. But Scranton's bishops believed he had slept with young men and offered them alcohol. Auxiliary Bishop Dougherty "expressed his conviction that Urrutigoity was a 'cult leader' who was 'capable of pederasty,'" wrote Bond in a December 2001 e-mail. (Dougherty did not respond to a request for comment.)

Dougherty, then vicar general, learned of the allegations of bed-sharing and alcohol consumption on August 14 or 15, 2001, according to an unpublished article Timlin wrote in February 2002. Dougherty visited Shohola to meet with the accused on August 16. “The priest [Urrutigoity] admitted that such sleeping incidents did occur,” Timlin wrote, but he denied they were sexual in nature. Society members also acknowledged that they had given alcohol to minors. But Urrutigoity maintained nothing immoral had taken place. So Timlin sent Urrutigoity to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who holds a master’s in counseling and a doctor of education in psychology, for evaluation.

The nature of that evaluation remains murky. Bond had written to the apostolic nuncio about his concerns, and the nuncio promptly forwarded the letter to Timlin. The bishop replied, quoting part of Groeschel’s evaluation of Urrutigoity:

Carlos [Urrutigoity] is one of those people whose creative mind outstrips his common sense…. As regards the question of moral impropriety that some people have raised against him—I found no indication of homosexuality in this report at all.

The report Groeschel mentioned is not available, nor is it explained. Also unclear is whether Urrutigoity and Groeschel were previously acquainted. In February 2000, Urrutigoity wrote to Timlin to ask whether the bishop would meet two priests and one brother he’d invited from Argentina who were “looking to establish their order,” Miles Christe, in the United States. “I am encouraging them to meet with the Rev. Frs. Groeschel, Hardon, and Fessio, so that they can benefit from their vast experience,” Urrutigoity wrote.

In the meantime, Timlin ordered SSJ members to stop sharing beds with young men and to stop giving them alcohol—“in the strongest possible terms”—he wrote to the nuncio. “The Independent Review Board…agreed that we were proceeding properly and prudently.”

Review Board minutes complicate Timlin’s account. The board met to discuss the matter on November 7, 2001. By then, Bond had e-mailed other SSJ members about the allegations against Urrutigoity. Word was getting around. At the same time, Bond’s dispute with the SSJ over the College of St. Justin Martyr had reached an impasse. He had sought the bishop’s permission to start a Catholic college apart from the Society, but Timlin wouldn’t allow it. The bishop told the Review Board that Bond’s allegations against the Society began “only after” the bishop denied him permission to establish a Catholic college. Indeed, that was the story Timlin told many who came asking, including the nuncio, the press, and a lawyer during a deposition. But that story is not supported by the public record. The Review Board tried to keep Timlin focused on the matter at hand.

“Dr. Hogan said that regardless of the issues concerning St. Justin Martyr College, the behavior of the priest should be of paramount concern,” according to minutes. She recalled the “red flag” of Matthew Selinger’s previous allegation that Urrutigoity had touched his penis while he slept. Another board member reminded Timlin that Bond may have done the diocese a favor by alerting them to this behavior.

“Dr. Barrett said he thinks the behavior…could be labeled ‘seductive behavior’…. The priest may label it anything he wants, but Dr. Barrett stated he still believes it ‘improper.’” When Timlin related Groeschel’s findings to the Review Board, Barrett said that “he did not believe that Fr. Groeschel could determine homosexuality by testing.”

Groeschel has worked with many priests accused of sexual abuse. Some he reported fit to return to ministry. But, according to the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, Groeschel’s judgment was not always sound. According to a 2003 report in the Dallas Morning News,

[The] Diocese of Paterson, N.J., one of several that sent business to Father Groeschel, blamed three “unfortunate” reassignments on his advice. Two of those priests were subsequently accused of misconduct in their new jobs.

“We relied on his recommendations,” said Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer. Father Groeschel used words such as “transformation,” she said, and helped arrange transfers between dioceses.

Groeschel replied to the Dallas Morning News article here, claiming his role on the Paterson cases was "significantly misrepresented." But in 2012 Groeschel controversially claimed some abusive priests were seduced by their victims, remarks that were disavowed by his religious community and by the Archdiocese of New York. He later apologized.

Of course, at the time the Diocese of Scranton’s Review Board had no idea that Groeschel’s ability to assess the fitness of priests for ministry had been called into question. Nevertheless, James Earley, then chancellor for the Diocese of Scranton, pointed out that average Catholics “will never believe that a priest could do such a thing with innocent intentions.” He asked board members how they would react if they were considering the case of a parish priest who made a habit of sleeping with young men.

Timlin replied that there had not been allegations of “immoral sexual acts.” He asked Review Board members for their advice. They recommended the bishop continue monitoring Urrutigoity to make sure he stopped sleeping with boys and giving them alcohol. But without an “explicit and direct complaint about improper sexual activity” on the part of Urrutigoity, they had “nothing specific to recommend.”

It wouldn’t be long before such a complaint came to light.

This is the third in a series of posts about the Urrutigoity case. Read part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here, and part eight here.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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