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Visits to this site

Booted Society of St. John makes comeback on Web site

Mark Guydish

FEB. 25, 2006

Though its welcome in the Diocese of Scranton was revoked, its land sold, and two of its priests faded from public view after settling a sexual abuse lawsuit, The Society of St. John has re-emerged in cyberspace, claiming a chapel in Paraguay, a post office box in Kansas and a phone number from Pittston.

The society originally came to the diocese with former Bishop James Timlin’s blessing in 1998, eventually settling in Shohola, Pike County. It promised a “Catholic city on the hill,” a new Catholic college and a return to the Latin Mass accompanied by choral chants.

But the society slid deep into debt, and two founding members, The Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity and Eric Ensey, were accused of plying underage boys with alcohol and sexually molesting them. No criminal charges were filed but a man identified as John Doe filed a federal lawsuit that was settled last year by the various defendants with payments totaling about $400,000, including $200,000 from the diocese. The priests’ attorney stressed the settlement was not an admission of guilt.

After Bishop Joseph Martino replaced the retiring Timlin, he “suppressed” the society in November 2004, essentially revoking Timlin’s initial approval that allowed it to operate in the diocese. The Shohola property, about 1,000 acres, was sold, and a diocese press release stated the transaction “was the full payment of the loan” arranged by Timlin. The diocese had guaranteed a $2.6 million loan to help the debt-ridden society.

The society has apparently rebounded. According to its Web site, www.ssjohn.org, the group is now a “civil, non-profit corporation … seeking to work for the renewal of the Church and our civilization by helping people access more fully the sources of Christian life.”

The Web site lists several priests who were involved in the Shohola operation as “honored friends of the society,” including Urrutigoity and Ensey. It also has pictures of the men in priestly garb, though they were ordered by the Diocese not to appear in public wearing vestments. The site says the photos are from 2001.

The site solicits money to help support the society’s “website apostolate” as well as its work in Paraguay, where “a good Catholic offered us his large home at a very good price,” and agreed to payments from the society “with no interest.”

The site gives a post office box address in Maple Hill, Kan., west of Topeka and under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan. A spokeswoman at that diocese said the bishop had no knowledge of the society’s presence.

“They have not contacted our bishop, nor have they been given permission to be here, nor would they be given permission if they asked,” said Anita McSorley.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, the society is still registered as a nonprofit corporation in good standing here, though it lists the Shohola address. It is not registered in Kansas, but Whitney Watson, a spokesman for the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, said the society doesn’t have to register because it falls under an exception for corporations formed “for religious purposes.”

Even so, the society may be violating church rules. When Martino issued his suppression, he included an order that the priests of the society “are strictly prohibited from any involvement in fund-raising activities for any pious purpose whatsoever” and that “the www.ssjohn.org web site must carry a prominent notice that the Society of St. John is no longer a recognized ecclesial entity of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Scrutiny of the St. John Web site found no notice – certainly no prominent notice – that the society is no longer recognized by the church.

A close look also reveals a letter dated Jan. 1, 2006, posted on the site that talks about a visit from the bishop in Paraguay to the society’s South American chapel. That letter lists the same Kansas post office box, and a phone number with the 570 area code and a 300 exchange – which would place the number in Pittston.

A machine answered the call and a recording said it was the Society of St. John, but no one returned a message. An e-mail to the address listed on the Web site similarly garnered no response.

It could not be determined Thursday what action, if any, the Diocese of Scranton could take if the society is violating the suppression order. Diocese Spokesman Bill Genello sent this written statement:

“Bishop Martino suppressed the Society of St. John in November 2004. Since that time, he has been taking all appropriate steps open to him under the Code of Canon Law to deal with the priests of the extinguished Society. The Diocese has no further comment on this matter.”


Mark Guydish, a Times Leader staff writer, can be reached at 829-7161.

 

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