Dysfunctional Dioceses

Dysfunctional Dioceses



Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening to his Anna Karenina novel reads,

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 

A glance at three troubled dioceses east of the Mississippi shows a portrait of local dysfunction, but with interesting differences among them:

  • The Dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown in central Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio are linked through a ‘monster cleric’ now deceased, who preyed upon dozens of minors in both dioceses.  While this may not be news in the wake of the scandal in Boston, the new news is the aggressive role of Pennsylvania’s attorney general resulting in the recent criminal indictments of three Franciscan Minister Provincials charged with conspiracy and child endangerment. 

  • In the Archdiocese of New York, there are two distinct ‘situations’ that may soon come together and conflate to form a critical mass (physics, not liturgy):

    In the wake of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s wholesale batch of mergers of more than fifty parishes in 2014-2015, thousands of local parishioners now await the disposition of more than a dozen canon appeals at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy; and

    There are plausible allegations of an inner network within the leadership of the diocese, involving favoritism in assignments and massive financial irregularities; along with the running story since last December of a law suit brought by parishioners against a pastor for misappropriation of over $1 million to support a flamboyant lifestyle; this first surfaced in The Daily News. But it took a specialized website, Church Militant to report the story of inner circle network within the archdiocese.  In due course, these twists of allegations may precipitate more litigation. 

Dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown, PA and Youngstown, OH

The local developments break into new legal territory:

  • Three Provincial Ministers of the Franciscan Friars Third Order Regulars are now under criminal indictment for conspiracy and child endangerment; these Provincial Ministers were successively in charge during the period 1986 through 2010, essentially they are the religious order’s bishops for central PA.

  • While these indictments echo the prosecution of Philadelphia’s Monsignor William Lynn of a few years ago by the city’s DA, they represent a significant escalation because they now bring center stage the attorney general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and three religious leaders.

  • As reported by the AP, “Last August, agents [Special Agents of the Attorney General’s office] raided diocesan offices in Hollidaysburg and carted off 115,042 documents from filing cabinets…”

The link between the Altoona and Youngstown Dioceses is a predator, Brother Stephen Baker, who served in Youngtown from 1982 until 1992, including a stint at a Catholic high school in Warren, OH as a sports trainer; he then moved to a Catholic high school in Johnstown, PA where he had unsupervised access to minors.  Given settlements with 91 former students at Warren/JFK High School reached in late 2015 – to which the Diocese of Youngstown was a party, for Youngstown the major issues become: (a) What did the diocese know at the time when Brother Stephen Baker moved from OH to PA; and (b) Did Youngstown pass to Altoona what it knew about Baker?

From Pennsylvania’s Investigating Grand Jury’s recent presentment (a 33-page report of findings):

“The Diocese of Youngstown said…they were alerted to the allegations in 2009…”

“The diocese [of Youngstown] said they had no legal liability but participated in the settlement negotiations…”

“JFK [the Catholic high school in Warren], T.O.R. [the Franciscan Order] and the Youngstown Diocese also agreed to pay attorney fees and expenses.”

“The [settlement]  agreements…said the payments will be made ‘solely upon pastoral concern’ and was not an admission of any wrongdoing [by the three named parties].

The Youngstown prelate tagged as the Damage Control Officer for the diocese is Chancellor John Zuraw.  On the issue of Youngstown’s chancellery archives subject to seizure by law enforcement, he is reported as saying that the diocese does not have a secret archive.  Hmmm, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘secret archive’. 

Under Canon 482, in all dioceses “…a chancellor is to be appointed…to ensure that the acts of the curia…are kept safe in the archive.” 

And under Canon 487, “The archive must be locked and only the Bishop and the chancellor are to have the key.”   Perhaps the Youngstown archives have been moved to the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington where they are shielded by diplomatic immunity.

Comment: from my direct knowledge, the Diocese of Youngstown is a case study in decline, going back to 2010/2011 when several ill-advised mergers were executed by Bishop George Murry, SJ, installed in March of 2007; these mergers have resulted in widespread parishioner alienation, falling church attendance, and shrinking collection plates.

Local Catholics feel strongly that it is high time for the Vatican to launch its own investigation into the management of the diocese through a formal Apostolic Visitation.  Confession might be good for the soul.

Archdiocese of New York

NY, NY is a wonderful town, tra la la.  But the outlook for the archdiocese (which excludes Queens and Brooklyn) is stormy.

Again from direct involvement, parishioner feelings are running high because of the dozens of mergers decreed in two waves (2014 and 2015) by the cardinal.  After some sleazy games were played by the archdiocese to deny parishioners the decrees regarding their own parishes (which is their right under canon law), decrees were grudgingly ‘made available’ for viewing at the chancellery.

Well over 20 canon appeals went to Rome in due course, and currently at least a dozen (probably more) have been accepted by the Congregation for the Clergy for review.

When the appeals have been decided, in the event of turndowns or only minor alterations to the cardinal’s merger decrees, there could be thousands of NY parishioners asking themselves the WTF question. 

And if the broader context within the archdiocese is gross financial mismanagement and turning a blind eye to credible allegations of embezzlement, with the connivance of an inner nomenklatura of UNcelibate clergy, that spells trouble.

In that regard, a couple of unusual ‘situations’ are materializing:

  1. The grotesque scandal Father Peter Miqueli, pastor to a couple of parishes who is now accused by parishioners – through a civil law suit – of financial improprieties involving over $1 million, along with allegations of $1,000/hour payments to “his hunky lover.”  Link below to The Daily News article of last December for the lurid (sic) details: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx-priest-sued-allegedly-stealing-1m-churches-article-1.2462101

  2. And detailed allegations involving the second-highest ranking official in the diocese, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo

As reported in several postings on the Church Militant website, Mustaciuolo is a hierarchical triple threat as: 

Vicar General, i.e. Executive VP of the archdiocese;

Moderator of the Curia, i.e. Chief of Staff to whom all curia department heads report, and

Chancellor, i.e. keeper of the archive (aka secrets); bear in mind Canon 487 above, ‘The archive must be locked and only the Bishop and the chancellor are to have the key…’

The Mustaciuolo story has not yet jumped from one specialized website to the mainstream media. And yet, the specific detail of what is alleged is striking.  Per Church Militant, one of Mustaciuolo‘s favored subordinates, Msgr. Michael Hull, was also a triple office holder in the archdiocese until Hull’s sudden and dramatic departure from the New York City area in 2014: 

Professor at St. John Seminary;

Pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, and according to the website, 

Mustaciuolo is also said to have secured a third full-time position for Hull – as director of the Sheen Center…a performing arts complex in Lower Manhattan that cost around $20 million to convert from a homeless shelter run by Catholic Charities.”

But in the spring of 2014 “Hull had suddenly vanished from the New York archdiocese, leaving no indication of his whereabouts…he surfaced in the news months later as Director of Studies…in the Scottish Episcopal Institute (SEI) – married and with a baby.”  Hmmm. 

One important detail:  Most Archdiocese of NY parishes are structured as non-profit corporations under NY State law, each parish with a five-person board of trustees.  As such, these corporations enjoy exemption from certain categories of taxes, and donations to them are tax exempt.  The quid pro quo is that the State attorney general exercises oversight through the Charities Bureau.  So, if donations are diverted to purposes inconsistent with the non-profit’s charter, there could be legal trouble.  Which in the first instance would draw into the situation the corporation trustees through oversight and fiduciary duties, i.e. the bishop, the chancellor, the pastor, and two lay members of the parish.

Comment:  You might wonder how NY’s newspaper of record has covered all this, with hundreds of newsroom reporters including their usual Religion and Metro beats.  Keep wondering.

And remember that it took the Boston Globe’s swat team – Spotlight – to break the 2002 scandal – after a brand new executive editor rode into Beantown in mid-2001 and re-mobilized Spotlight which disrupted the comfortable reporting arrangements that passed for coverage.

If it had not been for the Spotlight Team, do you think we would be having this conversation?  Do you think there would be today’s global awareness of clergy sex abuse of minors?

Coda:  Boston Archdiocese – A Glimpse into the Future?

If you want a preview of the longer-term consequences of the current situation in the Archdiocese of New York, just have a look at the Archdiocese of Boston today, 14 years after its own scandal:

Per the FY-2015 audited financial report, the Archdiocese of Boston recorded an operating loss of $5 million.  

Maybe not a big deal, BUT – coincidence (?) – net gains from the sale of closed parish properties in the year were just over $5 million, otherwise the losses would have been $10 million.  This is the business model for how dioceses manage their decline:

Cover operating shortfalls with sales of parish properties.

In financial terms this is unsustainable; it amounts to self-liquidation.  And beyond these clever financial maneuvers, consider the following:  

The most telling indicator of a diocese’s spiritual vitality is its Mass Attendance Ratio, the percentage of self-described Catholics in the diocese who actually crawl out of bed to go to Mass regularly.   Per Georgetown University’s annual survey,

The national average for all U.S. dioceses is 24% in 2015

(down from 55% in the halcyon days of 1960!). 

But for the Archdiocese of Boston the Mass Attendance Ratio was:

11.9% in 2015, down from 17% in 2010…dropping by one percentage point for each year, between 2010 and 2015.

And finally, a softer indicator:  

In September of 2014 the owner of the Boston Globe (and the Red Sox) funded the launch of CruxNow, a free weekly on the web covering the Catholic Church, staffed by expert Vatican reporters and with frequent ‘name’ contributors.   A few weeks ago, after a mere 18 months,

“…The Boston Globe has bailed…the Globe’s editor…’We made the words work, but not the numbers…So we decided…to cut our losses’.” (The Atlantic, March 11, 2016).  

Yet the Boston Archdiocese has a flock of almost 2 million faithful (2015 diocesan data).

Jeremiah, 2:31:

Why do my people say, ‘we have moved on, we will come to you no more?’


Prequel to Spotlight: Cardinal Law 1.0

Prequel to Spotlight – Cardinal Law 1.0

 Summary  As the old saying goes, victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan. In the aftermath of the two Oscars won by Spotlight for Best Film and Best original Screenplay, many of the picture’s heroes are emerging for their deserved moment in the sun.

Internationally, the official daily of the Vatican – the redoubtable Osservatore Romano – now describes the movie as “not anti-Catholic” and something that gives voice to “the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities.”

Oh my how the music from Rome has changed, but meglio tardi che mai (better late than never).

The basso profondo undertone of this story is the enigmatic figure of Boston’s cardinal, Bernard Francis Law, who has been beyond the reach of civil and criminal authorities since December of 2002. IMO he is something of a Shakespearean figure, a protagonist with great talents and flaws. Before essential aspects of the Boston abuse scandal get lost in the Oscars’ after-glow, it is worth recalling the context that pre-dated the eruption of the Spotlight team’s story in January, 2002. I offer some observations below on unmistakable signals going back to the 1980s – that there was a problem of clergy abuse of minors; and on some key events in the pre-scandal career of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Early Signals in the mid-1980s  One of the unsung heroes in this drama who did not get a role in Spotlight is the remarkable Tom Doyle. In an account he circulated a few days ago, he goes back three decades to when he served as a monsignore in the mid-80s at the Vatican Embassy in D.C. This kind of assignment put Monsignor Doyle into a very elite category, particularly since it had taken about two centuries for the U.S. and the Holy See to establish full diplomatic relations – from the beginning of George Washington’s first term until the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term.

To summarize Doyle’s fascinating account, by the mid-80s the Vatican Embassy (aka the Apostolic Nunciature) was receiving highly confidential reports from some U.S. bishops sounding the alarm about clergy abuse. Given the invisible walls separating the 175 Catholic dioceses in America (‘stovepiping’ in Washington-speak), the Vatican Embassy was the only entity with a wide-angle view of what was brewing in Catholic America. And Doyle was responsible for handling these issues.

He grasped quickly the systemic nature of the abuse problem, and after careful analysis he and two colleagues put together a recommended solution that even by today’s 20/20 hindsight was a sensible and compassionate response. Early on there was reason to believe that the association of Catholic prelates, now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would get in front of the problem pro-actively, so Doyle and colleagues drafted a comprehensive manual recommending best practices, ready to be presented to the American episcopate.

But nothing happened….business as usual in the 175 dioceses.

What did happen behind the scenes was that ranking members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy did not want to ratify a solution to a problem they were reluctant to acknowledge. And yet, one of the rising stars among the bishops, Boston’s then-Archbishop Law, seemed ready to endorse the initiative, and to give it much-needed support among the bishops. But then…according to Doyle, “Cardinal Law and I spoke a few times…and he assured me it was beyond his control, which I believed then and still believe.

Tom Doyle’s article of March 1 is at http://www.awrsipe.com  Then open the link to BEFORE SPOTLIGHT

The irony is that the American prelate most directly involved in the eventual scandal might have been – instead – one of the scandal’s leading heroes. Which brings us to Bernard Law’s unusual Church career.

Law’s Clerical Career  Born in Mexico where his father was running an airline after WWI service as a pilot in the Army Signal Corps, young Law acquired a world-view broader than the typical seminarians of the 1950s who usually came of age within the diocese they would serve as priests. He enrolled at Harvard, graduating in 1953 and concentrating in medieval history, which in the Vatican is probably classified as current affairs.

While a Harvard undergrad, he was president of the Newman Club (the WiFi hot spot for Catholic students in that Godless environment) and his nickname – according to a classmate – was Your Holiness, “reflecting his evident papal ambitions.” From college he went into the seminary, and was eventually ordained almost at age 30 – somewhat late by the clerical norm.

His first assignment was as a parochial vicar (assistant pastor) in the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, deep down in the impoverished Delta; not exactly a trophy parish area such as NYC’s Upper East Side or Boston’s Chestnut Hill. As a young priest Bernard Law was a genuine civil rights activist, and received the death threats that went with that territory during the early 1960s for his fearless articles while editor of the diocesan weekly. Fast-forwarding the years, his talents were recognized and he rose rapidly, working in Washington as director of a bishops’ committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and eventually rising to ecclesiastical flag rank when he was named Bishop of Springfield and Cape Girardeau in 1973 at the early age 42.

In 1984 – then in his early 50s and an outsider to the Boston area – he was the surprise selection as Archbishop of Boston, one of the crown jewels of Catholic America which carries with it rapid promotion to the personal rank of cardinal – i.e. a prince of the Church and a papal elector. Not long afterwards that he emerged as dynamic spokesman for Catholic America, and a crucial link between the U.S. government and the Holy See. It is no coincidence that with full bilateral diplomatic relations established in 1984, the fiercely anti-Soviet heads of these two States, one on the Potomac and the other on the Tiber, found it convenient to cooperate. Which they did. But it was vital to have a trusted go-between.

The story of the money flows from the American intel community, through (sigh) the Vatican bank and then into a grassroots network of Catholic parishes in Poland, has been told. But not much has been written about the Catholic mafia in the Reagan administration: Secretary of State Al Haig; national security advisers Dick Allen and Bill Clark; Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey; Director of Defense Intelligence Agency Dick Walters; etc., etc. These were not tepid believers. And there was an Evil Empire to be brought down. But someone had to manage the bumps along the road, given the inevitable (and not totally bogus) Soviet complaints of provokatsya, as well as transactional frictions in moving funds through the (sigh) Vatican bank during the troubled years of the Banco Ambrosiano money-laundering scandal.

Yet during that period another kind of evil reality kept intruding in the U.S.: The first clergy sex abuse scandal to get extensive media coverage erupted in Cajun country, the Fr. Gilbert Gauthe case in Lafayette, around 1984. In due course this played itself out. However, some years later the notorious Fr. James Porter case detonated. Porter was eventually accused of abuse by close to 100 victims and did time. The national media were in full outcry over him, including a cameo of Porter running away from a Diane Sawyer ABC film crew. By 1992 Cardinal Law concluded the media had gone overboard, and although his own diocese was not in the cross-hairs, at a Boston antiviolence event he thundered from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury:

“…we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe.”

Perhaps the vehemence of Law’s fatwa had something to do with what Tom Doyle had brought to his attention in the mid-1980s. Perhaps this was an effort by Law to put the abuse genie back in the bottle.

But somewhere along the way the idealistic young priest in the Mississippi Delta had changed. Only a candid memoir would give us the whole story, but that ain’t likely. The most interesting judgment about the cardinal’s career was delivered by Law himself when he was posing for an oil portrait during his glory days in Boston.

The artist asked him, “What is the toughest part of your job?”

The cardinal replied, “Judgment – the decisions I must make. That is the half of it. The other half is the judgment I must face one day myself.”

That day may nearer to hand than the cardinal might have expected. Or maybe it has passed.

Coda Today in Rome another prince of the church is in the hot glare of the media: Australian Cardinal George Pell who is being deposed by Australia’s Royal Government Commission investigating Pell’s conduct in the national scandal over clergy sex abuse. Depending on which vaticanista you talk to, Pell is either #3 in the hierarchy, or perhaps #2 (nosing out the Secretary of State because of Pell’s iron control over Vatican finances).

As reported in The Global Pulse this week, when summoned by the commission, the Rome-based cardinal pleaded that ill-health prevented him from traveling to Oz. So instead, the commission is deposing him by video link while he remains in Rome. According to Global Pulse, this might have been “a deliberate attempt to make things more complicated”, but if so, it “backfired spectacularly…the cardinal has brought the trial-like atmosphere into the pope’s backyard and commanded huge media interest” even within the jaded Vatican press corps.”

The boomerang is indeed an Aussie invention.

Reflecting on the twilight of the careers of these two famous cardinals, it is easy enough to quote Lord Acton’s famous dictum on the corrupting effect of power. What is less widely known is what Lord Acton added to this:

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Acton was commenting on the papal dogma of infallibility, pronounced by Pius IX and ratified by the Vatican I Council in 1870 during the last days of the Papal States. With fallible princes coming into the spotlight today, maybe Vatican I that should be revisited since Vatican II has been dismantled so effectively over the past half century