The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (V)

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

John Doe had had enough. Enough see-sawing between career paths. Enough retail work. Enough physical labor. Enough aches from such work. Enough pain pills. Enough drinking. Enough wanting to die. Enough denial. He had had enough. So he went through detox, received therapy following his suicide attempts. And now that his head was clear, he was ready to talk.

The first person John told he had been sexually assaulted by priests was his girlfriend, according to his sworn testimony. The second person he told was a friend. Following his suicide attempts, John disclosed the allegations to his counselors. And in late 2001, a few months after he left recovery—before he talked to his parents—John told another person he’d been molested by clerics: Jeffrey Bond. He may have been shocked by John’s claims, but it’s unlikely that he was surprised.

In April 2000, Bond had been hired by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity to establish the College of St. Justin Martyr. Three years earlier, Urrutigoity—originally from Argentina—approached Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see about setting up a community of clerics devoted to restoring liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. In addition to the college, Urrutigoity told Timlin, now retired, that he hoped to build a seminary and an entire town for traditionalist Catholics. Urrutigoity and his associates, who would call themselves the Society of St. John, had come calling because they had just been ousted from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—which rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Leaders of the SSPX were not happy about Urrutigoity’s plan to organize a new, more spiritually rigorous group within SSPX. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, was also concerned about Urrutigoity’s “strange, abnormal” influence over seminarians and other priests, according to a letter he later sent Timlin.

Misconduct allegations would follow Urrutigoity from Argentina to the United States, and eventually to Paraguay, where as early as 2012 he would be promoted to vicar general by the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. Pope Francis removed Livieres last September.

In Bishop Timlin, long fond of the Latin Mass, Urrutigoity found a sympathetic ear. He told the bishop that his group wanted to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Timlin forwarded their request to the Vatican. After it was promptly approved, the SSJs were allowed to reside at St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist group that exclusively celebrates the Latin Mass but remains in full communion with Rome. Urrutigoity would later testify that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had invited his group to St. Gregory's. It would be a temporary arrangement, until the SSJs moved to property they would purchase in Shohola, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. But in the meantime, St. Gregory’s got new chaplains and religion teachers; the SSJs got a home base from which to plan their Catholic college, seminary, and village; and Bishop Timlin got another group of priests who were devoted to the Latin Mass. Timlin didn’t realize it at the time, but by allowing the SSJs to establish themselves in Scranton he had invited the greatest scandal his diocese had ever known.

Months after Jeffrey Bond started his new job with the Society of St. John, he began to wonder whether he’d been duped by the man who hired him. Urrutigoity had made it nearly impossible for Bond to raise money for the college he was supposed to build from scratch. By May 2001, it had become clear to Bond that Urrutigoity would never allow him to use the SSJ donor database to raise money for the College of St. Justin Martyr. So Bond announced his desire to separate the college from the Society of St. John. At that point, Urrutigoity informed him that the college would have to become financially independent within a month’s time. Bond concluded that Urrutigoity was using the idea of establishing a traditional Catholic college to raise money in order to service the SSJs mounting debt—which reached well into the millions. Bond had heard that donors were clamoring to know how SSJ priests could justify expenses like a $26,000 dining set. But in August 2001, according to letters he circulated publicly, Bond learned that the SSJs were up to something much more troubling. He was told by the headmaster of St. Gregory’s that Urrutigoity and other SSJ members were providing alcohol to students—and sharing their beds with them. One of those students, according to his 2003 deposition, was John Doe.

John first met Jeffrey Bond in 1999, when he was a student at St. Gregory’s. Bond was visiting to give a talk on the Iliad and the Odyssey. After he graduated, John ended up staying with the SSJs in Shohola to explore the possibility of becoming a seminarian or enrolling in the College of St. Justin Martyr. That’s when he reconnected with Bond. “I got to know him on a reasonably personal level,” John testified. They would chat every so often—“mostly a discussion of literary things.” So when John “hastily” left the Shohola property in the fall of 2000, Bond took notice. In the late fall of 2001, not long after Bond had been told about the alleged bed-sharing habits of some SSJ priests, he phoned John to find out why he left Shohola in a rush. John came clean: he said he had been molested by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity and Fr. Eric Ensey—priests John and his parents would later sue in federal court. In sworn testimony, both clerics would deny molesting anyone. (Bond, Timlin, Urrutigoity, and Ensey could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.)

Weeks before Bond spoke with John Doe, he had already provided auxiliary Bishop John M. Dougherty with “extensive background information” about the allegations he heard from the headmaster of St. Gregory’s, according to a September 2007 memo written by James Earley, then-chancellor of the Diocese of Scranton. Bond also contacted the papal ambassador, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo (d. 2006), with his concerns. Bishop Timlin questioned Urrutigoity, who “denied any immoral behavior,” but did “indicate that there may have been times when overcrowding brought about the shared sleeping arrangements,” Earley wrote. A lawyer for the diocese also spoke with Urrutigoity; he “confirmed this activity” but denied anything sexual had transpired, according to the memo. Still, Urrutigoity “estimated that he may have had ten to twenty different young men” sharing beds at the Shohola property, according to the minutes of a November 7, 2001, meeting of the Clergy Review Board. Urrutigoity also admitted that the SSJs had served wine to young men “on occasion”—all over the age of eighteen, he claimed. Dougherty had spoken with a former SSJ associate who said that Urrutigoity shared his bed even when there was no overcrowding. Several members of the Review Board expressed their reservations about such behavior. But because there was no “direct complainant,” the Review Board recommended no further action. Timlin ordered the SSJs to stop sharing their beds with students and to stop giving them alcohol, and that was that—at least for the next two months.

Bishop Timlin learned of a “direct complainant” on January 12, 2002. On that day he received an envelope from Archbishop Montalvo, papal ambassador to the United States, that included a letter from John Doe’s father detailing his son’s allegations. The father’s letter was dated December 18, 2001. Why Montalvo took three weeks to get it to Timlin remains unclear. As soon as Timlin read the letter, he phoned John Doe’s father and “relieved the two priests in question”—Urrutigoity and Ensey—according to the bishop’s May 8, 2002, reply to the papal ambassador. The father “seemed surprised to hear from me and was rather reticent,” Timlin wrote. He apologized “for whatever happened,” and “suggested we send appropriate diocesan officials” to speak with his son. But John “was not in any condition to talk to anyone,” the father told Timlin. Calling the matter “very bizarre,” Timlin informed the nuncio that he suspected the letters sent by John Doe’s father—he also contacted the Holy See directly—were composed by Jeffrey Bond, “who is desperately trying to bring the Society of St. John to oblivion.” Timlin wrote that Urrutigoity and Ensey maintained their innocence, and he praised them because “they have not been disobedient to me.” As for the family of John Doe, “I feel sorry for” them. Maybe their son was abused. Maybe not. “If they would have been willing to talk to me, I would have gladly worked with them to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion. But they chose to go the route of civil litigation so we must treat the case accordingly,” Timlin wrote.

Timlin did not expand on what he thought he could have done for the family of John Doe. He had been warned in 1999, when the head of the Society of St. Pius X informed him of allegations against Urrutigoity dating back to his time as a seminarian in the mid-1990s. Timlin sent three investigators to talk with the accuser, Matthew Selinger, who said Urrutigoity had groped him while he slept. They said they believed the young man. But Urrutigoity denied that anything immoral had taken place. Since it was a he-said/he-said situation, Timlin recommended no sanctions. The Clergy Review Board agreed. Again in the autumn of 2001, more charges of bed-sharing surfaced—charges that sounded a lot like Selinger’s testimony, especially with respect to “overcrowding.” But again Urrutigoity denied that he had done anything immoral, and again Timlin let him off with a stern talking-to. Urrutigoity and Ensey denied John Doe’s allegations too.

Yet John did not accuse the two priests merely of sharing their beds with him. He said he had been assaulted by Ensey and fondled by Urrutigoity. During his 2003 deposition, he was questioned by defense attorney Sal Cognetti—the lawyer Selinger claimed Ensey had described as having “strong ties to the mafia” (refusing to comment on “that stuff,” Cognetti told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, “I find it humorous”). Under oath, John Doe described a relatively average childhood and early adolescence. He got good grades. He played basketball and baseball. He started a chess club. But as an elementary-school student, he was mocked by “pretty much all the students in my grade.” Whenever someone would get into trouble, “they’d say, ‘Well it’s [Doe’s] fault.’” He was an excellent student. He read a lot. Par for the course.

John did well in high school too, scoring a 1220 on the SAT. But about halfway through his time at St. Gregory’s, something changed. His friendships withered. “I wouldn’t say that I really had any,” he said. “Kind of isolated junior year.” That was right about the time John met Fr. Eric Ensey. During his first two years at St. Gregory’s, John went to confession “once or twice a week.” One day during his junior year, in the fall of 1997, he was looking for a confessor, and he saw Ensey standing in the cafeteria. The SSJs had recently arrived at St. Greg’s. “Since he was new,” John testified, “I asked him to go to confession.” John confessed that he was having a problem with masturbation. Ensey “told me it was a grave mortal sin that was putting my soul in danger.” He suggested they continue to talk about the issue in order to “work out some of the issues leading to this.”

Ensey asked to become his spiritual adviser. They met two or three times a week, usually “after Compline”—that is, night prayers—sometimes in the faculty dining room, sometimes in an office that doubled as a guest bedroom. After “the second or third time we met,” John explained, “he asked me if I wanted a drink.” He said yes. Sometimes it would be one or two beers. Sometimes a twelve pack. Sometimes each would finish a bottle of wine. On a couple of occasions “we polished off a larger bottle of Jameson.” John got drunk about half a dozen times. At least that’s what he could recall. “I did black out during that period.” Early in their friendship, nothing untoward happened. They had become drinking buddies, of a sort.

But in May 1998, according to John’s testimony, Ensey took that relationship further than it ever should have gone. After “getting pretty drunk” on beer and grappa in Ensey’s room, the priest told John a story. Back in medieval times, Ensey explained, a knight would take an oath of fealty to his lord. “The knight would kneel down before his ‘lord,’ place his folded hands inside the folded hands of his ‘lord,’” and they would “kiss each other on the mouth as a matter of loyalty and brotherhood.” Ensey asked John whether he wanted to try that, according to the deposition. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” But Ensey persisted. It’s not about sex, he reassured John. It’s about “platonic friendship.”

“Reluctantly,” John testified, “I agreed to do it.” He knelt down in front of Ensey, placed his hands inside the priest’s, and Ensey “forced his tongue inside my mouth.” John pulled away, downed the rest of his grappa, and left. It was his sixteenth birthday.

That didn’t end the relationship. John continued meeting and drinking with Ensey. Some of his classmates began making fun of him for his alcohol consumption. One night, a classmate interrupted John and Ensey during spiritual direction, and the priest scrambled to hide the bottles. “In the next couple of weeks,” John testified, “he would greet me in the hallway by saying, ‘clink-clink.’” Ensey wasn’t quite so bashful about drinking around John’s family, according to the deposition. On one occasion the priest brought a six pack to the home of John’s parents. Another time, Ensey stayed with John at his aunt’s house. Afterward, she told John’s father that “Ensey was not welcome back due to the amount of empty beer bottles she found.”

During his senior year at St. Gregory’s, John began looking at colleges. Ensey recommended Thomas Aquinas College, a great-books school in California. As luck would have it, Ensey’s parents lived nearby. He suggested the two fly to California so John could visit the school. They would stay with Ensey’s folks.

As soon as they entered the house, Ensey “pointed out his parents’ open bar in the living room and said, ‘Have whatever you want.’” The two spent the first night on the beach, warmed by blankets and wine. When John woke up, Ensey’s arms were wrapped around him, according to the deposition. The second night was different.

“We started drinking before bed,” John testified, and “continued late into the night.” Ensey told John they’d be bunking together. At bedtime, John removed only his dress shirt and shoes. He planned to sleep in khakis and T-shirt. “Are you going to sleep like that?” Ensey joked. “Don’t be Puritan.” John recalled that he was “pretty drunk,” that Ensey removed his T-shirt and khakis and gave him a back massage. Before falling asleep, John remembered Ensey warning that “if I felt anything that night, not to worry about it because he was human.” John woke up later when Ensey was pushing his head toward his groin, forcing his hand there too, according to his testimony. John protested, but Ensey told him “that’s what real friends do.” “The last thing I remember,” John continued, “is him forcing his penis into my mouth.” Then he “blacked out.”

Defense attorney Cognetti wanted to put a finer point on it. “Did you pass out or black out?” The latter, John replied. “I was pretty drunk.” Cognetti persisted: “What’s the difference between a pass out and a black out.” And after John finished trying to help Cognetti understand the subtle distinction between two states of unconsciousness, the lawyer asked a different kind of question: “Did you wake up with the taste of semen in your mouth?”

“No. I woke up, sir, with blood around my anus encrusted and it was hurting and I was fucking pissed off.” John’s mother was done. “Fuck you, jerks,” she interrupted. “You’re jerks. You’re all jerks.” So was John. “You fuckers,” he said. “You don’t even know,” his mother continued. “You don’t even know.

“Let’s take a break,” another attorney suggested.

When the deposition resumed, Cognetti repeated the question that brought the recess. It seemed as though he was trying to establish that John had had homosexual experiences, but John wasn’t going for it. “I don’t know what semen tastes like.”

What he did know, according to the deposition, was that following three other nights with Ensey, he woke up in the same condition. The morning after the first incident, John said, he went down to the kitchen, presumably for breakfast. “I fixed myself a very tall glass of vodka with a little bit of grapefruit juice in it.” He took his drink outside and smoked a couple of cigarettes beside the trash cans. John returned to the bedroom as Ensey was getting dressed. While the priest was pulling on his shoes, John snapped a photo of him. “I don’t know why,” he explained. “I just did.”

Ensey didn’t give it a thought. An idea had come to him, and he had to share it with John. Perhaps it was time for John to start seeing Fr. Urrutigoity for spiritual direction, Ensey suggested. The two of them could remain very close friends. “I’d just like to…keep our relationship on that sort of confessor/spiritual director basis,” John replied, “rather than a friendship basis.” Besides, “I don’t really know Fr. U.” That was about to change.

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read 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. 

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

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