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Scranton bishop suppresses conservative group November 29, 2004

Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pennsylvania, has suppressed the Society of St. John, citing grave financial problems and reports of sexual impropriety.

The Society of St. John, a conservative group dedicated to the revival of Catholic culture centered around the Tridentine Mass, was founded in the Scranton diocese in 1998, with the approval of then-Bishop James Timlin. But by 2002, the Society was beset with problems involving allegations of financial and sexual misconduct. Critics-- including disaffected former members-- cited lavish spending at the Society's rural Pennsylvania headquarters, and reports that adolescent boys were given alcohol and invited for overnight stays with the group's leaders.

In a canonical decree that was published on November 25 by the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Light , Bishop Martino announced that he was suppressing the Society. The bishop's announcement said that after 6 years of operation "the Society has shown no progress in attaining its stated purposes," and had become "principally a debt servicing operation." He also revealed that the Scranton diocese had backed a $2.6 million loan to cover some of the Society's debts.

Bishop Martino's announcement did not directly respond to accusations that the leaders of the Society had molested students at a school run by the group. Father Carlos Urritigoity and Father Eric Ensley were removed from active leadership of the Society by Bishop Timlin early in 2002, after the bishop received complaints about misconduct by the two priests. The Society denied the charges; the cases against the two priests remain unresolved.

In his announcement, however, Bishop Martino suggested that the conduct of the Society's leaders had been, at a minimum, imprudent. He said:

Allegations of sexual misconduct against two members of the Society have caused public scandal. If the allegations are not true, there, nevertheless, have been acts of commission and omission by members of the Society in general that have given rise to these allegations and the resultant scandal.

The Society of St. John had been established with a goal of forming new centers of traditional Catholic culture, with small communities built up around churches at which priests of the Society would celebrate the traditional Mass. The group had promised to establish a College of St. Justin Martyr to further its vision in the field of higher education. The man originally pegged as president of that college, Jeffrey Bond, became one of the first and most vocal critics of the group, and is now engaged in legal proceedings against the Society.