Society of St. John Update: Despite Legal, Financial Woes, Society Still Does Fund-Raising

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The Wanderer

05 September 2002

By Paul Likoudis

SHOHOLA, Pa. — Its founder and former superior and his top aide are under criminal investigation and relieved of their priestly duties; the Society and its sponsor are defendants in three civil lawsuits; the Society’s debts total $700,000 (discounting the mortgage on the $2.2 million mountaintop parcel of real estate that was to be the site for a medieval village).

Nevertheless, the Society of St. John views these as “setbacks” and is continuing its fund-raising appeals.

Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, founder of the Society of St. John, and Fr. Eric Ensey, both accused of homosexual molestation, remain under a criminal investigation by the Lackawanna County district attorney and the Pennsylvania state police based on charges leveled by a former St. Gregory Academy student, who, with his parents, has filed a lawsuit against the top two members of the Society.

Urrutigoity, who was ordained a priest for the Society of St. Pius X by Bishop Richard Williamson in Winona, Minn., and Ensey have been relieved of their duties by Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., and cannot appear or function in public as priests.

The lawsuit, filed by Seattle attorney James Bendell and Douglas Clark of Pecksville, Pa., also names the Diocese of Scranton and its bishop, James Timlin, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and St. Gregory’s Academy, an all-boys school operated by the Fraternity, alleging negligence on the part of the defendants for allowing St. Gregory’s students to have sleepovers with Urrutigoity and Ensey on Society of St. John property.

There are no allegations of improper sexual contact in any of the three civil suits against members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter or staff or administration at St. Gregory’s Academy. The lawsuit claims that “prior to being incardinated in the Diocese of Scranton, an incident of homosexual molestation took place between Fr. Urrutigoity and a former seminarian” at the Seminary of La Reja, operated by the Society of St. Pius X, in Argentina, and that he was subsequently admitted to the Pius X Seminary in Winona “with permission and warning from Archbishop [Marcel] Lefebvre that Urrutigoity was to be monitored,” and then was subsequently dismissed for “subversive activity.”

In an August 15 press release issued by the lawyers for the Society of St. John, the allegations were described as “fallacious,” and “so absurd that, besides their untruthful content, it is also expected that they will be found to have glaring inadequacies in form according to law.

“We therefore first contest that the suits should progress any further, as it would be reckless to waste our efforts and time to prove what from the outset is obvious.” The statement, issued in the name of the defendants’ law firm, Foley, Cognetti, Comerford, and Cimini, declares that the defendants “are innocent of all the tabloid charges being leveled against them by one vocal detractor.”

That “vocal detractor” is Dr. Jeffrey Bond, whom the Society recruited to establish its St. Justin Martyr College, and whom the Society claimed in its June 19, 2002 fund-raising letter, is “dead set on the destruction of the Society…at apparently any price.” As this report goes to press, the lawsuits are in pretrial discovery phase, and a trial date, it is expected, will be set on September 5. Asked by The Wanderer to comment on the lawsuits, plaintiffs’ attorney Bendell would say only that “the local ethical rules in federal district court in Pennsylvania forbid attorneys from trying the case in the press, so I have no comment except to say that I look forward to going to trial.”

In his six-page appeal on behalf of the Society of St. John, Deacon Joseph Levine appealed to Society benefactors to continue supporting the Society, which consists of eight priests, one deacon, four novices, and four other members.

Asked to give an update on the Society’s financial situation, Deacon Levine told The Wanderer that it has not filed for bankruptcy, and does not anticipate doing so. He also said that the mountaintop property in Shohola is not now for sale.

He also said that the Society has not tried to return or sell any of the approximately $235,000 worth of furniture, purchased from Penn Furniture over two years from 1997 to 1999, which was purchased on credit.

According to invoices posted by Jeffrey Bond on his web site, saintjustinmartyr.org, the purchases included such items as a $15,000 mirror, a $6,828 bar, a $2,885 cocktail table, a $7,845 entertainment center, a $12,995 desk, a $15,000 bedroom set, and a $26,480 dining table (with chairs). Also, three rugs, totaling more than $18,000; a $4,900 oil painting, Roses on Chair; two bedroom nightstands, for $7,500; another desk at almost $10,000; two swivel chairs, at almost $1,000 each; a leather and iron cocktail table for $1,860; a 7′ x 5′ tapestry for $4,735; a chandelier for $1,828; a telephone table for $975, and so on.

Deacon Levine emphasized that these purchases were “never for the comfort” of the members of the Society of St. John, but were purchased for the comfort of “guest visitors.”

The Other Two Cases

The other two lawsuits against the Society of St. John name as codefendants Bishop Timlin and the Diocese of Scranton, and pertain to claims by Dr. Bond personally and as president of St. Justin Martyr College for breach of contract, raising money under false pretenses, among other charges.

Among the interesting allegations made in the lawsuit is that Bond quit his previous teaching job on a verbal promise from Fr. Urrutigoity that he would be the founding president of the college, after key members of the Society’s Board of Advisers, businessman Matthew Sawyer, John Blewett, and Howard Wash resigned because they were concerned about the Society’s mismanagement of its financial resources.

The lawsuit also alleges that Fr. Urrutigoity informed Bond that he could no longer pay him for his work as the college’s president, due to financial constraints, at the same time as he indicated his intention to hire a cook, a secretary, and a receptionist.

The attorney for this lawsuit, as well as the other, is Douglas Clark.

In the second lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ attorney alleges that the Society’s fundraising appeals used the notion of a new Catholic liberal arts college as a major component for drawing financial support for the Society, but “misrepresented” to donors that a portion of the money would be dedicated to the college.

Of the estimated $5 million the Society took in through its various appeals, the lawsuit states, “very little money was actually directed by the Society to the college project.”

Still Operating

At this time, the Society of St. John exists as an association of priests of the Diocese of Scranton, and continues to solicit funds, despite public allegations by former supporters, advisers, and board members that the Society is actually a cult of homosexuals.

Among those who made that charge is former member Fr. Richard Munkelt, who was ordained by Bishop Timlin for the Society, and subsequently asked for a release and who remains a priest of the Diocese of Scranton.

In a March 28, 2002 affidavit, he declared:

“…I believe with moral certitude that the Society of St. John is a cult of homosexual predators and their accomplices. They justify, or rather rationalize, perversion by recourse to a theory of male intimacy based in part on a specious criticism of puritanical attitudes. They foster among youth puerile fantasies of male camaraderie. And they use alcohol and tobacco to break down the resistance of victims.

“Friends of the Society and some parents of boys who have been closely associated with the Society are utterly fooled by the charm of these predators, and refuse to address themselves to the specific warning signs and evidence of Society malfeasance. Moreover, many of them wield the slogan of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ with appalling ignorance of the standards of evidence that justify moral action.”

Munkelt, who joined the Society in September 1999 as a deacon, and was ordained by Timlin in June 2001, stated that he resigned from the Society in August 2001, because: “1) I came to the conclusion that the Society was engaged in a land development scheme that was both infeasible and quite possibly fraudulent; 2) I had observed that the Society had reduced itself to a debt service and telemarketing corporation; and 3) I was convinced that the Society was unethically using the College of St. Justin Martyr to raise money for itself with no intention of supporting the college…

“Furthermore, I had my private doubts about Rev. Urrutigoity’s dealings with youth. During my tenure with the Society of St. John, I slowly began to take notice of the gatherings of young men hosted by Rev. Urrutigoity. Many of these young men were St. Gregory’s Academy graduates. These gatherings would sometimes involve evenings of heavy drinking and a number of young men sleeping in Rev. Urrutigoity’s private chambers along with Rev. Urrutigoity. I did not suspect homosexual activity but considered the activity to be rather irresponsible and recklessly imprudent, especially given the times and the publicity over cases of priestly sexual misconduct.

“Moreover, I thought, should such activity become known to the public it could destroy everything and everyone associated with the Society, including many donors and families, in a maelstrom of scandal. Let it be said right away that such a willful departure from sound judgment by Rev. Urrutigoity, as head of a clerical association and a project involving millions of dollars, itself constitutes gross immorality.”

Fr. Munkelt’s full statement, along with copies of the three lawsuits, and other informational items can be found on the Internet at saintjustinmartyr.org.

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