In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”
But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.
Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.
Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)
The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.
In 2004, after Martino had expressed his desire to suppress the Society of St. John, auxiliary Bishop Dougherty urged caution. The SSJ’s canonical status would strengthen their argument when they appealed to the Vatican, he argued. As a new bishop, Martino would not want to appear “tyrannical” in the eyes of the Holy See. But he was not deterred. One day, as he and Dougherty were returning to the cathedral rectory, Martino explained his thinking: “You know, John, you’re always saying that we are not called to be successful, only faithful,” Martino recalled during his December 2008 deposition. But “if I lose on appeal in my suppression of the Society of St. John, at least I can look the people of God in the eye and say I did the best I could to remove this dangerous group of reprobates.” He continued: “If I lose, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not God.” But, as Martino was about to find out, even God may have struggled to overcome the Society’s abiding recalcitrance.
Before Martino could start a canonical process against the SSJs, he had to get a fuller sense of what they were up to. In November 2003, Martino sent a pointed letter to Fr. Dominic O’Connor, who took over as superior of the SSJ after Urrutigoity was suspended in 2002. Martino sought a full account of the Society’s activities, assets, debts, and purpose. The SSJ had “no seeming visible reason to exist except to collect money and pay bills,” Martino testified in 2008. “For that the church needs a group of priests? I doubt it.” The bishop never received satisfactory answers to his questions. “This group gave new meaning to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” he quipped. (Through a spokesperson, Martino declined to be interviewed.)
Absent any cooperation from the Society, Martino engaged the services of a canon lawyer in Rome to help make sure he stayed on the right side of church law as he moved toward suppressing the organization. “I was being very, very careful,” Martino said in his deposition, “so as not to give them [the SSJs] any reason to further blacken my name, that of the diocese, or to turn people to the opinion that I was oppressing these poor souls.”
In a March 8, 2004, letter to O’Connor—head of the SSJ—the bishop repeated his request for the names and addresses of the Society’s donors so that he could inform them of his concerns about the group’s finances. Martino did not want donors to blame him for failing to inform them of the crushing debt their funds were servicing. O’Connor refused to provide the information. Martino threatened to go to the press, but the Society would not budge.
A few weeks later, the Scranton Times Leader reported that, despite the fact that Timlin had suspended Urrutigoity two years earlier, a photo of the priest wearing clerical garb had been published—in a children’s book.
In September 2004, Bishop Martino traveled to the Vatican as part of a delegation of bishops visiting the Congregation for Clergy, the office responsible for dealing with priests and deacons who don’t belong to religious orders. Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos, then prefect of the congregation, asked the bishops to share their experiences with those in their dioceses who celebrated the old Latin Mass. Castrillon-Hoyos reffered to those Catholics "somewhat sarcastically," as "our ‘Ecclesia Dei friends,'" Martino later wrote. (Ecclesia Dei was the document John Paul II issued allowing wider use of the Latin Mass. Pope Benedict expanded its use in 2007.) But because Timlin was present, Martino stayed mum about the Society of St. John. Martino sought to rectify that lapse days after he returned to Scranton.
In a September 19, 2004, e-mail, Martino asked his chancellor, James Earley, to work on a letter to Castrillon-Hoyos about the SSJ as soon as possible. “We need to strike while the iron is hot,” Martino wrote. “I’d like the cardinal to get this letter from me before the SSJ ever reaches him.”
The letter, which was sent before the end of the month, painted a dark portrait of the SSJ. “The Society is characterized by financial carelessness and staggering debt, allegations of sexual misconduct, and disobedience” to their bishop, Martino wrote. He singled out Urrutigoity. “As I write, I am not certain of his whereabouts.” Martino was no foe of the Latin Mass, he explained. “I have always worked to reconcile authentically those who are dissatisfied with the church’s post-conciliar liturgical renewal.” But, he warned, Pope John Paul II’s permission to use the old Mass was being “misinterpreted” at the local level. Martino also shared his fears about the Society’s staggering debts. Finally, the bishop let Castrillon-Hoyos know that he was planning to disband the Society. “Nothing less than the suppression of the Society of St. John will bring about the needed transformation in the lives of these priests” and “their followers,” Martino concluded.
Martino issued the decree of suppression on November 19, 2004. The document cited four reasons: First, the Society of St. John had made “no progress” toward its stated purposes (building a seminary, college, and village) and functioned “principally [as] a debt-servicing corporation.” Second, the group had risked exposing the bishop to charges of failure to supervise, with respect to its finances. Third, “allegations of sexual misconduct” against Urrutigoity and Ensey had brought scandal to the diocese. And fourth, the SSJ had “caused grievous financial burdens” for the diocese. Martino forwarded a copy of the decree to the papal ambassador to the United States, and had it published in the diocesan newspaper.
The Society appealed immediately—first to Bishop Martino, who swiftly rejected the request. But that was not the Society’s only recourse. Because Bishop Timlin had granted the group canonical status as a “public association of the faithful,” the SSJs could take their case to the Vatican, which is exactly what they did.
As the Society’s appeal was being considered at the Congregation for Clergy, Martino was trying to make its members understand that they had obligations as priests of the Diocese of Scranton—including obedience to their bishop. Martino and the Society disagreed about whether the suppression was in effect while the appeal was pending. He was also concerned that the SSJs would sell or move their belongings behind his back. “We would hear from time to time that things were being taken, removed,” Martino testified.
Even after Martino acted to suppress the SSJs, Ensey and Urrutigoity’s lawyer asked the diocese to provide them with legal assistance as the sexual-abuse lawsuit moved forward. “Given that Bishop Timlin and the diocese have taken the position that [John Doe’s] allegations of sexual misconduct are false, why has no legal defense been provided these priests?” wrote Sal Cognetti Jr. No one from the diocese had ever contended that Doe’s allegations were false. “We should provide only what is absolutely obligatory, and not one red farthing more,” Martino wrote to his chancellor in January 2005. “They can sue us when they get to jail!”
In a February 9, 2005, letter, the new superior general of the SSJ, Fr. Daniel Fullerton, entreated Martino to explain why he had treated the group so shabbily. “Are we to be denied the right to have our side of the story heard before we are condemned?” Fullerton asked. Then he listed the group’s grievances: other priests were told to have nothing to do with the SSJ; they were dropped from the diocesan mailing list; they have been asked why they won’t be obedient and accept the suppression without appealing; others have publicly said the group was “shut down,” which “has interfered with our very ability to survive”—that is, to raise money.
“I fail to be persuaded by your arguments,” Martino replied. “You have steadfastly prevented me from exercising my rights and fulfilling my obligations of oversight with respect to your fundraising activities.”
Months passed without word from Rome. Martino was losing patience. The Society sent out an April 2005 fundraising letter that suggested the group was planning a move to Argentina—Urrutigoity’s country of origin—and indicated that they had accepted two new members. If the SSJs managed to sell their Shohola property to fund such a move, the diocese would be on the hook for millions.
Martino asked his chancellor, James Earley, to write another letter to the Congregation for Clergy. This was a risk, because the Vatican was still reeling from the death of John Paul II. The letter would have to be “a combination of sober argumentation, as well as an occasion for tears (on the Congregation’s part!),” Martino wrote in an April 26, 2005, e-mail to Earley. “You might also throw in some schmaltz about how the death of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI has no doubt prostrated them with grief and now joy.” Martino was loath to nag the Vatican so soon after the election of a new pope, but “the squeaking wheel gets the oil,” as he put it in a separate April 26 e-mail.
The final draft of the letter, dated April 28, 2005, warned the Congregation for Clergy that the Society planned to relocate to Argentina, that rumors were circulating that they were close to selling their property—which would saddle the diocese with nearly $3 million in debt—to say nothing of the pending lawsuit, and that Ensey and Urrutigoity had gone missing.
Five days later the Congregation for Clergy formally denied the Society of St. John’s appeal. The next week, Martino sent a long letter to the priests of Scranton to inform them that the diocese had sold the Shohola property and paid off the loan secured by Timlin for the Society in 2003. The bishop also explained his decision to settle the federal lawsuit brought by John Doe. “Some of the depositions in this case were truly horrific in their description of what took place,” he wrote. Letting a jury hear such testimony could spell financial ruin for the diocese. Finally, Martino addressed rumors that Society priests were poised to move to South America. If that were to happen, he promised he would inform the papal ambassador of the “serious claims of immoral behavior” made against Urrutigoity and Ensey. “I wish to make it impossible for them to reestablish themselves without full disclosure of all the events that took place during their stay in the Diocese of Scranton,” Martino explained.
Martino may have thought that the SSJs would never find a bishop who would allow them to reestablish themselves after learning all that had transpired in Scranton. But they did find such a bishop—in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
In June 2005, a month after the Vatican upheld Martino’s decree of suppression, Fr. Eric Ensey and Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity asked Martino’s permission to “excardinate” to Ciudad del Este. In order for a priest to move from one diocese to another, the “home” bishop must give his approval. Martino denied both priests’ requests. Ensey’s request was particularly surprising because he had a case pending against him at the Vatican for the canonical crime of sexually abusing a minor (he could not be charged with a civil crime in Pennsylvania because the statute of limitations had run).
Urrutigoity’s case was different. He was never accused of a canonical crime because he had not been accused of molesting minors. “As far as I’m concerned,” Martino later testified, “he always kind of escaped under the wire.” Even so, Martino denied his request for similar reasons. “Scandal caused by your past behavior may render you unsuited for continued public ministry,” Martino wrote in his reply to Urrutigoity’s excardination request.
Not having Martino’s permission to excardinate did not stop SSJs from leaving the country. By the end of 2005, the Society of St. John had reassembled in Paraguay. A January 2006 fundraising letter thanked the local bishop, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, for celebrating a pontifical Mass with the SSJs. By doing so, “the bishop left no doubt that he warmly approves of the work of the Society,” then-Brother Anthony Myers wrote. He reminded potential donors of the Society’s commitment to “the right worship of God”—that is, in Latin. He cited Benedict XVI’s claim that “the church stands or falls with the liturgy”—music to traditionalists’ ears. “Without question,” he concluded, “we cannot do our part unless you do yours.”
In the meantime, the Society members whose excardination requests were denied—Ensey, Urrutigoity, Dominic Carey, and Basel Sarweh—took their complaints to the Vatican. Martino was furious. But he was also nervous about seeming “stubborn” when it came to the SSJ. His impression was that “the Society of St. John was making a very good case for itself by constantly being in Rome against my wishes…by going door to door, even to people like Cardinal [Francis] Arinze, who had nothing to do with this case,” Martino said in his deposition. At the time, Arinze was head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, which handles liturgical matters, not issues of clergy assignments. He was also an outspoken advocate of the Latin Mass. Arinze appears to have given support to the Society in 2005, when they were looking to reestablish themselves in Paraguay. The cardinal later apologized “for putting his nose where it didn’t belong,” according to Martino.
Martino suspected that the SSJs were “blackening” his name “at a time when the Holy See, the pope [Benedict XVI] was asking bishops to be sympathetic to those we might call traditionalists, those who prefer the Mass as it was celebrated [in Latin] until 1962,” he testified. “The last thing I wanted was to be regarded as some leftist liberal who just went after this group simply because they were old fashioned or conservative,” Martino continued. He was, he said, well known for being sympathetic to those who preferred the old rites. “The last thing I needed was to have the Society of St. John blacken my reputation and explain my opposition to these reprobates constantly violating chastity, poverty, and obedience simply by the fact that I have a different perspective of the Second Vatican Council.”
But the Society’s affinity for the Latin Mass wasn’t the only thing that opened doors for them in Rome. “The prominence of the Urrutigoity family”—a family of some means—played a role too, according to Martino’s testimony. “I gather that Mrs. Urrutigoity constantly accompanied her son or others from office to office,” Martino said.
Martino visited the Congregation for Clergy again in January 2006, after he learned of the SSJ’s renewed fundraising efforts. He warned the congregation of the Society’s reappearance and its continued disobedience—their members still had not received his permission to leave Scranton. Martino was reassured that the congregation “knows the games the SSJ are playing,” Martino wrote in an e-mail.
As word spread that the Society of St. John was back in business, John Doe’s attorney, James Bendell, contacted the papal ambassador to Paraguay, Archbishop Orlando Antonini. “I hope you will appreciate the urgency of the need to quickly suppress this den of vipers,” Bendell wrote in his February 28, 2006, letter. In late March, Antonini replied: “I can assure you that the two priests of the Society of St. John who were temporarily in the Diocese of Ciudad del Este have been sent away in the last weeks by Bishop Rogelio Livieres, and it seems that there remains no trace of the Society in Paraguay.”
Six months later Bishop Livieres wrote to SSJ supporters announcing that he had “received the Society of St. John into my diocese.” The September 8, 2006, letter continued: “I want to now voice my personal and official support for this young and promising community.” The bishop said he had known “some of these men for many years.” He extolled the Society’s promotion of the “traditional Latin liturgy.” Claiming that he was “continuing the work of Bishop James Timlin,” Livieres confirmed that he was pursuing the final stage of canonical approval to establish the SSJ as a “society of apostolic life.” He failed to mention that Timlin’s successor suppressed the group in 2004.
Later that month, the Society sent out another fundraising mailer. This one shared the news that Anthony Myers, once a member of the SSJ in Scranton, had been ordained a priest in Rome by Bishop Livieres—just two months after the papal ambassador to Paraguay claimed the SSJs had left the country.
The Society published yet another newsletter on September 26, 2006. This one touted the group’s longevity—“the Society of St. John is now a canonically established priestly community of ten years”—without mentioning its 2004 interruption in service. “In order to pursue its goals and ideals,” the letter continued, “the Society has often taken the road less traveled.” The newsletter also suggested that the SSJs were operating outside of Ciudad del Este—and growing. In December 2005, “diaconal ordinations…took place in Buenos Aires.” In May 2006, “a few more young men joined our ranks.”
The group’s ambitions were growing too. “After [Livieres] raised us to full diocesan status, his next goal is to procure for us full pontifical status,” the letter reported. That would have made them more accountable to Rome than to their local bishop—but it seems that goal was never reached. Not that the SSJs’ local bishop was in danger of disciplining them. Indeed, he had them “designing the seminary program,” according to the letter. Livieres established that seminary against the wishes of his brother bishops in Paraguay, who felt the country’s main seminary in Asuncion was more than sufficient.
For Bishop Livieres, the Society of St. John was not merely an ally in the battle to restore liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. The Society also provided warm bodies to a diocese that was running perilously short on priests. But while the bishop was free to establish any organization he wanted in his diocese, he was not free to pluck priests from any diocese he liked. If Livieres wanted priests who were incardinated in another diocese, according to church law, he would need the permission of that diocese’s bishop. Obtaining Martino’s consent would not come easy.
Martino testified in 2008 that he had been advised by a staffer at the Vatican to release Urrutigoity to Livieres. Under canon law, Martino explained, priests have a right to be excardinated. “There was no way that he [Urrutigoity] was ever going to obey me,” Martino explained. So when Livieres requested Urrutigoity’s release, Martino eventually agreed. But he had conditions. First he unspooled for Livieres the sordid story of Urrutigoity’s time in Scranton—the financial scandal, the sexual scandal, everything. Martino initiated a canonical process in order to force Urrutigoity to undergo a thirty-day retreat before the excardination was finalized. At that point, “with all due clarifications, I let it be known to Bishop Livieres: if you want him you can have him,” Martino said.
On December 31, 2006, Livieres wrote to Martino to inform him that Urrutigoity had completed the retreat, and was ready to be excardinated. But a few things about that letter seemed odd. First, it did not arrive by diplomatic pouch, as is customary. Second, the letterhead looked different from prior communiqués. Third, the bishop’s address was transposed—58 instead of 85. And fourth, the name below Livieres’s signature was misspelled. Martino suspected the letter was a forgery. “We have no idea who authored that letter,” Martino said in his 2008 deposition.
About two weeks later, Martino replied—by the usual diplomatic channels. He shared his suspicions about the letter’s authenticity. Then he rehearsed his litany of “gravest doubts about Fr. Urrutigoity’s suitability” for ministry. “He will be a corrupting influence in your diocese,” Martino advised—because he “poses a serious threat to young people.” Martino told Livieres about the “alarming” psychological evaluation of Urrutigoity carried out by the Southdown Institute, and urged him to obtain a copy from the priest. “I solemnly warn you in the strongest terms possible,” Martino wrote, “that I have every reason to believe that the same [scandal] will befall the Diocese of Ciudad del Este if you accept him there.” That said, Martino told Livieres that if he returned a properly notarized letter acknowledging these dire warnings, Urrutigoity would be excardinated. Martino never received that letter.
Bishop Martino was not happy with his decision to excardinate Urrutigoity, according to his deposition, but he felt he had no choice. After all, Urrutigoity was already in Paraguay, along with other Society clerics. “There was nothing further I could do,” Martino testified. “At least everyone knows what I think of him—including officials in the Holy See.”
But not everyone at the Vatican shared Bishop Martino’s clarity of vision when it came to the Society of St. John. During a January 2008 visit to Rome, Martino met with the Congregation for Institutes and Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which handles issues related to religious orders and congregations. Before the meeting, Cardinal Franc Rodé, then prefect of the congregation, had written to Martino to say that he was “a little confused by the fact that they had in their hands a letter from Bishop Timlin in which he spoke rather highly—or at least in a complimentary fashion—of the Society of St. John,” according to Martino’s deposition.
Timlin wrote the letter in July 2007. That summer, Fr. Thomas Doyle—a canon lawyer who was advising John Doe—wrote the papal ambassador to Paraguay to advise him of the Society of St. John’s history in Scranton. In reply, the nuncio’s secretary assured Doyle that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the allegations against Urrutigoity “lacked merit” (because none of his accusers claimed he had molested them when they were minors). “We have an affidavit,” according to the August 2, 2007, reply, “from the bishop emeritus of Scranton, James C. Timlin…in which he categorically denies the accusation [of sexual misconduct] contained in your letter.”
After Martino returned from Rome, he confronted Timlin about the letter. “Timlin said that he meant no harm,” Martino testified. Timlin asked what Martino would like him to do. That surprised Martino. “I don’t know that I have to instruct a man who is almost twenty years older than I am about what he should do,” Martino said. He characterized the letter as a breach of etiquette. “I think if I were in that situation,” he continued, “I would say, Look, the Lord gave me fifteen, twenty years to be the bishop of Scranton. I did the best I could. Now I’m retired. I hope to be able to be able to help as much as I can, but it’s time for me to get ready to go to God some day, so I have other things I want to do. Read and pray and repent…to get ready for the roll call up yonder.”
During Martino’s January 2008 visit to Rome, he also met with the secretary of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, established by Pope John Paul II to help normalize relations with former members of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X. (In 2007, Benedict XVI tasked the organization with overseeing the application of his decree expanding the use of the unreformed Latin Mass.) Martino wanted to make sure any Roman avenues pursued by the SSJ would not be easily traversed. He shared his “very high level of concern” about Ensey and Urrutigoity, and forwarded the chronology of the SSJs prepared by his chancellor, James Earley.
In March 2008, Martino wrote to another Vatican office—the Congregation for Bishops—to raise alarums about the reestablishment of the Society of St. John in Paraguay. He mentioned the case of Carlos Urrutigoity, who was still technically incardinated in Scranton. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the congregation, contacted Bishop Livieres in Ciudad del Este and conveyed Martino’s “serious concerns” that Urrutigoity was not “presently being supervised properly,” the cardinal wrote to Martino. Re also had the papal ambassador remind Livieres that he needed Martino’s permission for Urrutigoity to move to his diocese. “I trust His Excellency Bishop Livieres will contact Your excellency to inform you about the present situation and to come to a mutual agreement about the most appropriate solution to this case.” That never happened.
A little over a year later, Bishop Martino resigned for mysterious reasons. He explained that insomnia and “crippling fatigue” made it impossible for him to continue, but some speculated that he was pressured to resign because of his style of governance. He was sixty-three—twelve years shy of the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five.
During the summer of 2008, controversy erupted in Ciudad del Este as local Catholics got wind of the allegations against Urrutigoity and the Society of St. John. They wanted to know why their bishop would bring such people into their diocese. Many publicly aired their displeasure. Livieres responded with a detailed letter, forcefully defending the priest and his organization. He revealed that the Society came with the recommendation of Cardinal Arinze—then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He proclaimed Urrutigoity innocent, falsely asserting that Pennsylvania prosecutors did not charge him with a crime because the accusations lacked merit. (In fact, the statute of limitations had expired.) Livieres characterized the allegations as a “smear campaign,” and cited Timlin’s numerous comments praising the SSJ. He produced quotes from one of Urrutigoity’s psychological evaluations, which he said confirmed the cleric’s heterosexuality. Livieres also offered personal testimony of Urrutigoity’s “spiritual quality,” having known him and his family since 1991.
Livieres may have thought his exhaustive rebuttal had put the matter to rest, but in fact it was just the beginning—the beginning of the end of his tenure as bishop of Ciudad del Este.
This is the seventh in a series of eight posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the conclusion here.