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

The day after Fr. Eric Ensey first sexually assaulted him, John Doe testified, he asked to sleep on the couch. The two were staying with Ensey’s parents in California so that John could visit Thomas Aquinas College. He was considering of attending TAC after graduating from St. Gregory’s Academy in Pennsylvania, where he had met Ensey. It was the fall of 1998. “I remember thinking that I would like to [sleep on the couch],” John would later testify as part of a federal lawsuit alleging that Ensey and Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity had molested him. Yet he was worried that asking to move from Ensey’s bedroom, where the two had spent the previous night, to the sofa “might give some sort of bad connotation.” John thought Ensey’s parents might wonder whether “something had happened, and that was the one thing that I did not want to admit.”

John was upset about what had happened at Ensey’s parents. He would later allege that the priest had sexually assaulted him while he was passed out drunk on four occasions during that trip to California. But John “was trying to put it out of my mind.” At the same time, he found it hard to believe that Fr. Ensey “could do something wrong.” By trying to banish those memories, John was able to continue spending time with Ensey when they returned to St. Gregory’s Academy. After resuming his late-night meetings with Ensey, John faced more mockery from classmates. “They made fun of me for spending time with Fr. Ensey,” John recalled, even though it was “very widely known among the students that a good portion of the students drank with Society members.” On one occasion, John returned to his dorm room well after lights out. As he was about to slip into bed, he noticed that someone had spat mucus all over his pillow. “So I didn’t really feel accepted.”

Ensey provided solace. “He made it a point to discuss how friendship should be kept between one or two [people]…and how he was a true friend and no one else was.” By this point, Ensey seemed to be “the only one who understood me...the only one I bothered to invest time in,” John testified. So he continued to participate in Ensey’s brand of alcohol-assisted spiritual direction. On several occasions between the time they returned from California and the time John graduated, Ensey fondled him, according to John’s testimony. (Under oath, Ensey denied assaulting or groping John; efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.)

Yet John still hadn’t told anyone, and he continued spending time with Ensey. That did not mean he was comfortable with the situation. Rather, Ensey had continued to insist that because John was “raised American” he had “Puritanical instincts concerning male friendship,” according to John. Ensey repeated his view “that it was natural for men to sleep in the same bed…[and] to cuddle.” The “Puritanical” aspects of American culture were something Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity was known to complain about, according to other witnesses.

But by the second semester of John’s junior year, Ensey warned John to be more careful about their visits. That was when Ensey “informed me that Mr. Hicks, the headmaster, didn’t want boys going over and having…spiritual direction or counseling meetings [with Society of St. John priests] after Compline,” according to John. That didn’t mean the two couldn’t see one another anymore. “He [Ensey] said it was fine,” John testified. The cleric just wanted John “to stay quiet about it.” Later, John recalled, Ensey woke him early one morning to tell him “to go back to my room before anyone realized I was gone.” John complied, as he had before and would again, right up through Graduation Day.

John took Ensey’s advice on which college to attend: Thomas Aquinas College. He didn’t even apply anywhere else. But after just one semester at TAC, John quit. “I was drunk all the time,” he testified. “I had a pretty good feeling that if I stayed there, I would be kicked out” for excessive drinking. But John wasn’t giving up on a college education just yet. He had just spent “the most formative years of my life being drunk,” according to his deposition. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He lacked self-esteem. He constantly debated taking his own life. “I was just looking for a way out,” John said. The Society of St. John seemed as good an exit strategy as any.

John knew the Society was putting together a Catholic college—the one Jeffrey Bond was hired to run—and he thought that might be a good place for him to study once he got his act together. So he contacted Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, and arranged to visit the SSJ property in Shohola, Pennsylvania. John visited the SSJs for about a week during the summer after he left TAC. He was already working a retail job at home, and still drinking excessively. John “spoke with Fr. U. concerning the fact that I did not want to join the order but wished to attend the college [St. Justin Martyr], and he said that would be no problem,” according to his deposition.

John attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting weeks later, in August 2000. He knew he couldn’t fall into the same self-destructive pattern that made it impossible for him to stay at Thomas Aquinas College. But when John arrived in Shohola in September—after a month of sobriety—he was told he could not enroll at the College of St. Justin Martyr because it was for seminarians only. Urrutigoity did not bother mentioning that stipulation as he drove John from New York City’s Penn Station to Shohola, even though John had already explained that he didn’t want to join the SSJs. He waited until John was already safely on the SSJ property. Worse, Urrutigoity would not allow John to use the SSJ’s car to attend AA meetings in town. “Fr. U. flatly forbade me,” John testified. “He said I didn’t need them…that it [AA] was full of crap.”

John stayed, fearing he’d fall back into his drinking habit if he returned home. But the Society was having some trouble finding John his own accommodations. He stayed a few nights with Fr. Ensey—at the priest’s request—and was repeatedly groped, John testified. He was sober enough to resist: “Will you stop?” he implored. He moved to Fr. Urrutigoity’s room.

John offered to sleep on the floor, but Urrutigoity said his mattress was plenty big. “We didn’t want to be Puritans,” he protested, according to John’s deposition. “He said that besides, since I was going to be up there for a little while, I should develop a good relationship with him and that I should share his mattress on the floor,” according to John. He complied. A few nights later, John alleged, Urrutigoity fondled his penis. He rolled over, pretending to be asleep. When it happened again, according to John, he said, “I don’t want you to do that.” Urrutigoity “said something about…being a Puritan, but no problem.” John asked to move to another room, but his request would not be granted before Urrutigoity would grope him again, John testified. Eventually he would be moved to a bed in a hallway. (Under oath, Urrutigioty has denied molesting anyone. In June 2014, he was surprised by a Global Post reporter in Paraguay, and called the allegations part of “a whole hysteria,” that is, a smear campaign. Urrutigoity could not be reached for comment.)

By that point, John was doing odd jobs for the SSJs, in exchange for room and board. He worked on their website. He cooked for them. He had occasion to discuss SSJ matters with other people who worked for the organization. That was when he realized the Society had a serious problem with money. “I noticed that they were spending exorbitant amounts of money.” So he wrote to Urrutigoity to share his concerns. He called the Society’s furniture “more extravagant than useful,” adding, “How often does the pope come to visit?” He also shared how “shameful and degrading” it felt to shop for groceries with a Society member and be told “the bill for the last month or more had not been paid.” He chided Urrutigoity for failing to pay hard-working staff members, and warned him that he was risking the Society’s credit rating. John Doe was a teenager at the time. He did not mention anything about Urrutigoity’s alleged sexual misconduct.

The letter did not go over well. Two SSJ members—Br. Anthony Myers (now a priest) and Fr. Daniel Fullerton—“cussed at me for over an hour and a half, saying that I was an insolent arrogant prick and that I had no business making these observations and Fr. Urrutigoity was a priest and knew better than me and I needed to leave the premises unless I wrote a retraction, which I did,” John testified. He wasn’t happy about it. But there was one sentence in particular that John tried to avoid including in the letter: “I put my trust in your judgment of all situations arising.” Myers told him to put it in, John said, or face expulsion from the property. John heeded Myers, and sent his apology, calling his previous letter “foolish” and irresponsible. He expressed his “gratitude for all that the Society has done” for him. The SSJs “live a truly Christian life,” John wrote, “and live it in a way that no one else does.”

Soon after receiving the letter, Urrutigoity approached John to thank him for sending it. Several days later, John packed his bags, and headed home. Within months, John would relapse badly. “At that point I had no reason to stay sober, so I proceeded to attempt to drink myself to death,” John testified. But alcohol wouldn’t be enough. He started smoking pot, popping pills, snorting cocaine, and shooting heroin. He was hospitalized following two suicide attempts in 2001, and, with the help of counseling, began to come to terms with the terrible memories he said he’d tried to suppress for so long.

In 2002, John Doe and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, Fr. Eric Ensey, the Diocese of Scranton, Bishop James Timlin, the Society of St. John, St. Gregory’s Academy, and the Fraternal Society of St. Peter (which ran St. Gregory’s). No one was brought up on criminal charges because the statute of limitations had run. Urrutigoity and Ensey denied molesting John. Urrutigoity denied sharing a bed with anyone other than one of St. Gregory’s dorm fathers, himself a recent graduate of the high school—but said that nothing sexual had happened. John Doe’s attorney, James Bendell, produced witnesses whose testimony contradicted Urrutigoity’s—all former St. Greg’s students. They corroborated the pattern described by John: situations that led to bed-sharing, complaints about Puritanical attitudes, groping.

One witness, John Zoscak, testified in a 2004 affidavit that Urrutigoity had molested him too. Zoscak joined the Society of St. John after graduating from St. Gregory’s Academy. Not long after Zoscak moved to the SSJ’s Shohola property, Urrutigoity suggested the two share a bed. The teenager wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Urrutigoity “said that the reason I felt uncomfortable was because I had a Puritanical attitude, and that this was due to a bad relationship with my father.” Zoscak continued: “He said that sleeping with him would heal this problem.” Because Zoscak thought that Urrutigoity was “a perfect priest,” he relented.

Zoscak was pictured as a postulant in an early SSJ fundraising mailer, and was quoted in a 2000 Washington Times story promoting the Society’s ambitious plans. “God called me basically when I was at work on the graveyard shift,” an eighteen-year-old Zoscak told the Times. He asked God why he was unhappy, and God explained: “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” “And what is that?” John asked. “Join the Society of St. John.” A few months later, according to Zoscak, Urrutigoity groped him while he slept. He reported the incident to law enforcement, but was told that no charges could be brought because the statute of limitations had run.

Diane Toler and her husband often received requests for donations from the Society. In early 2002, she got wind of the alleged bed-sharing practices of Urrutigoity and the SSJs, so she wrote to Fr. Dominic Carey to share her concerns. A month later, he phoned her. Carey readily acknowledged that SSJ priests slept with young men, but he denied that there was anything sexual about the practice, according to Toler’s 2002 affidavit. “Father [Carey] said that this was Fr. Urrutigoity’s method of having the Society priests bond with boys,” she wrote. In other societies at other times, he continued, it was common for men to sleep in the same bed—“including Ireland.”

Conal Tanner was a year behind John Doe at St. Gregory’s. Urrutigoity served as his religion teacher and his spiritual director. After Tanner graduated in 2000, he accidentally left some luggage at St. Gregory’s. But he had already returned home to Ottawa, and it was a six-hour drive back to the school. So he called Urrutigoity to see whether it would be all right if he stayed the night at the Society’s Shohola property, and the priest said that would be fine, according to Tanner’s 2003 deposition. Tanner figured there would be plenty of room, because many SSJs were in France studying for the summer. But after he arrived, he found that Urrutigoity had not set up a bed for him. The priest told him they would have to share “this little fold-out mattress in the corner,” Tanner said. He barely undressed, leaving on his trousers and shirt, and he slept on top of the covers. The two talked for a bit. Urrutigoity threw his right arm around Tanner, who went “stiff as a board.” Moments later, Urrutigoity withdrew his arm. Tanner drifted off to sleep. When he awoke, he said, his fly was down. In sworn testimony, Urrutigoity denied sharing a bed with Tanner, but he did admit to sleeping on the floor with him.

Like John Doe and several other St. Gregory graduates, Tanner attended Thomas Aquinas College in California. Tanner took some time off after high school before starting at TAC in 2002 (two years after John left). By that time, news of the lawsuit had spread among St. Greg’s graduates at TAC, some of whom were “supporters of the Society of St. John,” Tanner said in an interview earlier this year. Before long, as Tanner’s opinion about the lawsuit became known, he “felt like my life was in danger.” Tanner was a runner. On a couple of occasions, while Tanner was jogging around the campus road, a car “driven by a St. Gregory’s guy” made contact without knocking him down. Later in the school year, Tanner decided he should approach one of the St. Greg’s graduates to apologize for not bringing his views about the lawsuit to them sooner. But “why didn’t you guys come to me?” Tanner asked. “Well, we knew your opinion,” the classmate replied, “and a lot of guys said that if they heard it come out of your mouth, they wouldn’t be able to control themselves.” Tanner wanted that clarified: “They would attack me?” “Yes.” During that period, “I felt like I was living under an atmosphere of violence,” Tanner told me. “For a long time I thought that maybe I should carry a knife.”

That threatening atmosphere was not limited to Thomas Aquinas College. According to Tanner, some time after John Doe’s allegations against Urrutigoity and Ensey became public knowledge, a few St. Gregory’s graduates paid a visit to John’s house. They knocked on the door, and, when John’s parents answered, the young men asked to speak with John. “They said they wanted to set him straight,” Tanner told me. John’s parents instructed them to leave the premises. (Tanner’s account was corroborated by another source with knowledge of the events.)

John Doe’s lawsuit finally settled in 2005 for about $400,000. But John’s lawyer, James Bendell, thinks he could have gotten more. He claims the defendants were less than forthcoming when it came to documentation central to the case. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, Bendell sought the psychological evaluations of Urrutigoity and Ensey, which Bishop Timlin ordered after he received the letter from John Doe’s father in January 2002. Timlin sent the clerics to the Southdown Institute in Canada. “We were told [by the diocese], ‘Sorry, we don’t have the Southdown records,’” Bendell said in an interview. He was working hard to pry the evaluations, which had been paid for by the Diocese of Scranton, from the Institute—not an easy task, given the fact that it is located Canada. Days after a judge ruled that those records would be admissible, the suit settled.

Yet it wasn’t until a later lawsuit brought by Jeffrey Bond—hired by Urrutigoity to establish a Catholic college for the SSJs—that Bendell actually learned what the evaluations contained. During that proceeding, Bendell discovered the minutes of Clergy Review Board meetings during which the Southdown reports had been discussed. According to the March 2002 minutes, Southdown “strongly recommended” counseling for Urrutigoity’s “antisocial and narcissistic” “personality disorder.” Southdown’s assessment of Ensey was more troubling. Counselors determined that he “struggles with a repressed sexuality,” that “his sexual attraction is toward adolescent boys, a stage that he appears locked into,” and recommended inpatient treatment. In 2014, after resurfacing in Paraguay, Urrutigoity would authorize the publishing of redacted versions of his Southdown report after local media started reporting on his past. For his part, Bendell believes that having those records for John Doe’s lawsuit would have brought a larger settlement. Instead, “either the diocesan attorneys or the diocese misled the court.” Asked to comment, a spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton replied, “The current bishop [Joseph Bambera, appointed in 2010] and leadership of the Diocese of Scranton are unable to provide any insights into these assertions.”

John Doe’s lawsuit outlasted the tenure of Bishop James Timlin, who had given the Society of St. John shelter in the Diocese of Scranton, who sped the one-time schismatics’ reconciliation with Rome, who repeatedly defended them against sexual misconduct allegations, even well after he retired in 2003. He bequeathed the SSJ situation to Joseph Martino, who was installed as the ninth bishop of Scranton in October 1, 2003. Martino was well aware of the scandal visited on the diocese by the Society. He was briefed on the dire financial position of the organization. He knew that Timlin had suspended Urrutigoity and Ensey. “I was here probably about six weeks when I determined that this was a group I had to [canonically] suppress,” Martino later testified. But getting rid of the Society of St. John, as the new bishop would soon learn, was easier said than done.

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the seventh here, and the eighth here.


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

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.