The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (IV)

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

“At the beginning of the Gospel of St. John,” Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity wrote in a September 2001 fundraising letter, “we see the calling of the first apostles.” Upon meeting Jesus, they ask where he lives. “Come and see,” Jesus replies. “The Evangelist then simply states, ‘They went and saw where he lived and stayed with him that day,’” Urrutigoity continued. He was seeking financial support for the clerical-formation program of the Society of St. John, a traditionalist Catholic group he had founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1997—months after he was expelled from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. But he wanted more than a seminary. Urrutigoity planned to build a liberal-arts college and a village for traditionalist Catholics. His profligate spending, along with a string of sexual-misconduct allegations stretching from Argentina to Pennsylvania, ensured none of that would ever come to fruition.

Like the first followers of Jesus, Urrutigoity wrote in his September 2001 letter, the young men who joined the SSJ would be required to leave their families and friends. Novices would have to “detach themselves from all worldly affairs in order to give themselves entirely to the Lord.” That would mean “minimal contact with the outside world,” Urrutigoity explained—“no newspapers, no internet.” Those strictures would prove especially important to the Society in the weeks and months that followed. The day after Urrutigoity composed the letter, Dr. Jeffrey Bond—hired by Urrutigoity in April 2000 to establish his hoped-for college—circulated the first of a series of e-mails and open letters denouncing Urrutigoity for alleged sexual misconduct and Bishop James Timlin for allowing him to remain in ministry.

Indeed, Timlin—who invited Urrutigoity and the Society of St. John into the Diocese of Scranton, brokered the schismatics’ return to full communion with Rome, and proved unable to stop them from running up millions in debt—took every opportunity to defend them, even well after the diocese had settled the sexual-abuse lawsuit that would eventually lead to the group’s canonical suppression.

No one could say Timlin hadn’t been warned.

On August 19, 2001, Alan Hicks, then headmaster of St. Gregory’s Academy—the boarding school where SSJ members lived before purchasing property in Shohola, Pennsylvania—informed Bond of Urrutigoity’s “bizarre occasional practice of sleeping with young men,” according to a letter Bond sent to auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty. At the time no one had alleged that the sleeping incidents were sexual in nature. Hicks also claimed that the practice was a feature of Urrutigoity’s “pet theory” of friendship designed to foster loyalty, according to Bond. “Even more disturbing,” Bond wrote, was that Hicks said Urrutigoity supplied students with alcohol and tobacco. (Hicks later denied knowing anything about it, but a former St. Gregory’s student testified that an SSJ priest had told him that Hicks forbade Society members from staying up late with students.)

A month later, Bond decided to find out whether any other SSJ members shared that “pet theory” about friendship. When he asked one member whether “he thought it was wrong in theory for a priest to sleep with a young man in the same bed in his private chambers,” he said no, according to a September 27, 2001, e-mail Bond sent to Society members. Bond asked whether he thought such an act was “an occasion for sin.” Again the SSJ member replied no. Finally Bond asked whether he thought such an act was imprudent, and the member said, “I don’t know.” “It would be good to hear from any of you who are as concerned about this as I am,” Bond concluded. No one replied to his e-mail.

Bond’s message got around. On October 24, 2001, Linda M. McDonald, a local parishioner, wrote to the diocese to complain. She implored Timlin to “act on Bishop Dougherty’s findings” and expel Urrutigoity and shut down the Society. (It’s not clear what findings she’s referring to. After the diocese was informed of the allegations against Urrutigoity, auxiliary Bishop Dougherty was sent to investigate. McDonald may have been referring to Bond’s later claim that Dougherty had “expressed [to Bond] his conviction that Urrutigoity was a ‘cult leader’ who was ‘capable of pederasty.’”) “This is outrageous and a near occasion for sin,” McDonald concluded.

Timlin replied two days later, chiding McDonald for giving “any credence to the vicious rumors circulating in some circles.” He told her that “there have never been any confirmed reports of immoral conduct” by Urrutigoity or any other Society members. He did not elaborate on what he meant by “confirmed,” nor did he mention that he thought the allegations “seemed credible,” as he wrote in an unpublished February 2002 statement. “For the record,” he wrote to McDonald, “the Diocese of Scranton does not have any financial involvement with the Society.” Six months later Timlin would be warned by Sr. M. Martin de Porres McHale, a member of the SSJ’s financial advisory board, that because the Society “has no money, the Diocese of Scranton could possibly be held liable for not calling to a halt what is going on”—that is, the SSJ’s profligate spending and crippling debt.

Bond’s public criticism of Urrutigoity, the Society, and Timlin himself, began to wear on the bishop. By the late autumn of 2001, Bond had given up hope of working with the SSJ’s to establish a college. It had become all too obvious that Urrutigoity would never allow the college to raise money on its own. In fact, Bond began contemplating taking legal action against the SSJ (years later, he would settle a lawsuit with the Society). So he sought Timlin’s permission to establish a Catholic college elsewhere in the diocese. Timlin refused. The atmosphere was just too acrimonious, he said. “The only thing I see coming from these actions is that many people will be hurt, the traditional Latin liturgy movement would be wounded and suffer a severe setback,” Timlin wrote to Bond on November 7, 2001. “Many people would be confirmed in their belief that the traditional movement is made up of contentious people who cannot get along.”

Yet Timlin held out hope that Bond and the Society might be reconciled. He offered to broker a deal allowing Bond to establish a college with the SSJ, but only if Bond was “willing to start from where you are, financially and otherwise,” and only if Bond would “stop attacking Fr. Urrutigoity and the Society publicly and privately.”

But Bond had no intention of keeping quiet. So two days after Timlin floated the possibility of reconciliation, the bishop composed a statement defending Urrutigoity and the Society of St. John against “intemperate and widely diffused attacks.” (Whether it was ever released remains unclear.) The accusers “have not been able to substantiate that Father is guilty of ‘immoral sexual behavior,’” Timlin wrote. The Diocesan Independent Review Board “unanimously approved” the way he had handled the allegations, Timlin claimed, failing to indicate reservations expressed by some board members, including one who said the alleged acts—which Timlin said Urrutigoity admitted to—could be considered “seductive behavior.” Finally, Timlin rehearsed Bond’s dispute with the SSJ and the diocese. “My reason for denying” Bond permission to start a Catholic college, Timlin wrote, “is that the situation resembles a ‘hostile takeover’ and has become so contentious that it is bordering on scandal.”

That border had already been crossed. And if Timlin didn’t realize just how deeply into scandal the diocese had gone, Bond would make it his mission to enlighten him.

In a December 2001 e-mail to dozens of “concerned Catholics”—including conservative media figures such as blogger Patrick Madrid and radio host Al Kresta—Bond laid out the case against Urrutigoity and other SSJ members. In the months since St. Gregory’s headmaster allegedly revealed that Urrutigoity and other SSJ priests were sleeping with young men and serving them alcohol, Bond had done some homework.

Bond learned that in the late 1980s Urrutigoity had been dismissed from a seminary in Argentina run by the Society of St. Pius X—the schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Urrutigoity was accused of making unwanted sexual advances on classmates. He was also expelled for his “significant pride” and for “forming a faction of seminarians under his influence,” according to a letter from the seminary rector at the time, Fr. Andres Morello, made public by Bond. Later Urrutigoity was given another chance at an SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota, where he was eventually allowed to teach (after he was ordained). Why, Bond wondered, was Urrutigoity given that second chance?

He put the question to then-Bishop Richard Williamson, who ran the Winona seminary at the time (and has since been dismissed from the SSPX for denying the full extent of the Holocaust), Bond wrote in September 2002 open letter. Williamson explained that Urrutigoity got a second chance because “key SSPX authorities in North and South America did not believe the charges against him,” according to Bond. Why? The South American district of SSPX was in the midst of a prolonged dispute between sedevacantists—those who believe there has not been a valid pope since Pius XII—and their opponents. Fr. Morello—then rector of the La Reja seminary—led the sedevacantists. After Urrutigoity was accused of making unwanted homosexual advances, he “claimed that he was being persecuted and slandered because of his stance against Fr. Morello’s group,” Bond wrote. Apparently that was sufficient to secure another shot at seminary in Winona, Minnesota.

When Fr. Morello learned that Urrutigoity was about to be made a priest, he sent a confidential canonical report to Williamson “in order to stop the ordination,” he wrote to Bond. The dossier contained summaries of testimonies taken from SSPX seminarians and a lay man accusing classmates, including Urrutigoity, of “homosexual behavior.” The allegations track closely with the sworn testimony against Urrutigoity.

One witness claimed that Urrutigoity once entered his room at night, found him in bed, and announced that he had a fever. “The lad replied that he was feeling well,” according to the dossier Bond publicized, “but Urrutigoity insisted that he had a fever and that in order to confirm it he was going to fondle his genitals to see if they were inflamed, and he did so.” Another said that Urrutigoity had touched his penis while they were in the bathroom. (Under oath, Urrutigoity has denied sleeping with or fondling young men.)

The dossier alleges that SSPX Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta “knew of the [Urrutigoity] situation.” The version disseminated by Bond includes a handwritten aside claiming “De Galarreta did not expel him because of the problems this could cause, especially with the Calderon family.” (Which Calderon family is not specified.)

In July 1989, Morello traveled from Chile, where he was stationed at the time, to Winona, Minnesota, so that he could present the case against Urrutigoity in person. After arriving, he learned that Williamson had already shared the allegations with Urrutigoity and provided him the opportunity to write a defense. Williamson read that document to Morello, and accused him of lying. “A few days later, on July 16, 1989, I was expelled from the Society [of St. Pius X],” Morello wrote to Bond.

Williamson told Bond that he forwarded Urrutigoity’s self-defense to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the SSPX, who accepted it but told Williamson to “watch him like a hawk.” When Williamson eventually ousted Urrutigoity, it wasn’t for sexual misconduct; Urrutigoity had not yet been accused of molesting a seminarian in Winona. Urrutigoity was ousted because he wanted to start a new religious group—the Society of St. John, which Bishop Timlin eventually brought into the Diocese of Scranton.

In Bond’s December 2001 e-mail to “concerned Catholics,” he shared conversations he’d had with young men who knew Urrutigoity after he arrived in Pennsylvania in 1997. “I have been told by a number of young men who have slept with Fr. Urrutigoity that he sleeps ‘very close,’” Bond wrote. He claimed that his sources said Urrutigoity’s modus operandi “is to encourage them to come to his room for late-night spiritual direction.” Then, Bond continued, “he invites them into bed with him under the pretext of their being ‘brothers.’”

That wasn’t all Bond discovered. Over the course of his investigation, Bond also spoke with a St. Gregory’s Academy alumnus whose association with the Society of St. John continued beyond graduation. He disclosed that when he was in high-school Fr. Eric Ensey, then chancellor of the SSJ, plied him with alcohol, molested him, and passed him along to Urrutigoity for more “spiritual counseling.” Bond was one of the first people he told, but he wouldn’t be the last.

Within months, the young man would bring a federal lawsuit including sworn testimony from almost all the major players in this story. And the Diocese of Scranton would plunge deeper into scandal than it had ever been before.

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

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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