MY BRUSH WITH THE SEX ABUSE SCANDAL
Does the Cult of Urrutigoity Still Haunt Teens in America?
By Stephen Herreid
Perhaps the most destructive event of the past 20 years for the Catholic Church has been the concerted coverup of the sexual abuse of minors, a coverup involving cardinals, archbishops, bishops, pastors, school principals, and others, who neglected their duty to protect those in their care. While norms now exist to remove abusive priests, there have been many complaints over the years that the Church has made no provision for punishing bishops who covered up crimes and allowed them to continue. Likewise, too many others who colluded in coverups have escaped any consequences for their culpable failure to act. Some of them still hold high positions in Catholic education. This is the story of a coverup that went unpunished.
Grant Gallicho recently wrote an explosive series at the Catholic site Commonweal about Pope Francis's removal of the bishop of the Paraguayan diocese of Ciudad del Este after an investigation of a disgraced priest, Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, who founded a religious order, the Society of St. John (SSJ), which was suppressed amid charges of sexual abuse. Urrutigoity, a highly educated Argentine aristocrat, took advantage of his order’s access to teens at a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania to ply boys with liquor and cigars, to curl up in bed with them as part of “spiritual direction,” and to actually molest one of the boys, according to the victim “John Doe,” who would later file a federal lawsuit that resulted in a $452,000 settlement. After “Doe” made his accusations, several more victims emerged—seminarians and students who claimed that Urrutigoity had abused them earlier in his career. Having fled the U.S., Urrutigoity quickly rose to one of the two highest ecclesiastical positions in the South American diocese and, until Pope Francis removed him from office just last month, was still surrounded by loyal adolescent followers—to the outrage of local residents, who condemned their bishop for championing this charismatic sociopath who has left behind him a long trail of accusations of homosexual activity spanning two continents.
A beautifully printed fund-raising letter was issued recently on behalf of St. Gregory the Great Academy, a newly refounded school in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which promises to train its students in the Great Books and great ideas of Catholic culture. Activities include Gregorian chant, juggling, extensive sports, and cultural field trips to New York City. The school is endorsed by the abbot of a thriving conservative monastery and by a well-known Catholic bishop.
What do these two sets of facts have in common? St. Gregory the Great Academy is a new incarnation of the very school (St. Gregory’s Academy) that once invited Fr. Urrutigoity to serve as its chaplain. It is led by Howard Clark—one of the top administrators in charge when that priest was reportedly intoxicating and sleeping in bed with underage boys at the school—and staffed by devoted alumni who aided Clark as students and residence assistants during the scandal. Clark’s staffers have a history of defending Urrutigoity’s practice of sleeping in bed or sleeping bags with adolescent boys, allegedly as a means of spiritual “bonding.” Of three students who would give sworn testimony that the priest slept with them, two would defend the practice—and it was those two champions of Urrutigoity whom Clark went on to hire to work for the school by the time the scandal began to unravel.
According to whistleblower Jeffrey Bond—who quit a job teaching for the Society of St. John when he uncovered the scandal—Clark withheld the truth in depositions about the scandal, and was complicit in the coverup of Urrutigoity’s activities, which included a night spent in bed with Clark’s own son. In subsequent years, Clark employed “as dorm fathers and teachers many of the devoted cult followers of Carlos Urrutigoity…young men [who] were intimate acquaintances of Urrutigoity,” according to an open letter Bond wrote to warn parents against Clark and St. Gregory’s Academy.
When questioned by a colleague, other dorm fathers defended the heavy, underage drinking that was reportedly routine at St. Gregory’s under Clark’s leadership. Two sworn eyewitness depositions state that Urrutigoity shared alcohol with young students in Clark’s presence.
St. Gregory’s Returns, with the Same Leaders
There is close continuity of leadership and ethos between the old St. Gregory’s and the new Gregory the Great Academy. Clark is president of the new school, and has hired as headmaster an alumnus whom Bond describes as a “devoted cult follower” of Fr. Urrutigoity. This new headmaster once signed a petition asserting Urrutigoity’s innocence of all charges. The headmaster’s brother, another alumnus, admitted under oath that he slept with Urrutigoity while a student there, but defended this mode of “spiritual direction.” (This bedmate and defender of Urrutigoity taught at St. Gregory’s until 2012, and continues to visit the school.) During the scandal, both of these brothers helped to create “Friends of the Society of St. John,” a lay group formed up for the sole purpose of defending the innocence of Fr. Urrutigoity and another accused member of the society he founded.
How do I know all this and why do I care? Because my own college was invaded by acolytes, defenders, and at least one sometime bed partner of Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, who were hired as teachers and administrators at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH, beginning in 2010. Within a few years, the school’s admissions director, a groundskeeper, and a teacher were all alumni of St. Gregory’s—and the school’s director of student life was the daughter of Howard Clark. Each of these new employees (two of whom were veterans of “Friends of SSJ”) defended Urrutigoity’s innocence either publicly or, according to a TMC faculty member, privately. One of them also defended the routine practice of male teenage students sharing each other’s beds at St. Greg’s, dismissing criticism of it as “American Puritanism.”
I and several other students, and one faculty member, became deeply concerned about the influx of St. Gregory’s alumni. So we slogged through the extensive, heartbreaking court documents, which, together with the testimony of Dr. Jeffrey Bond, backed up the assertion of one former SSJ member that Urrutigoity was the ringleader of a “homosexual cult.” The documents also outlined a coverup by Howard Clark and Urrutigoity’s other defenders and enablers who remained on Clark’s staff.
In 2012, when St. Gregory’s Academy was closed by its sponsors, Thomas More College invited all of its upperclassmen and their teachers to take up residence in the dorms.
Howard Clark, Pedagogue
I had met Howard Clark at a seminar during the summer of 2012. It was hard to look him in the eye, knowing what I knew about his past from my own research. I shook his hand and smiled rigidly, trying not to think of “John Doe” and the other boys whose time at St. Gregory’s Academy seemed to have left them broken and confused. Clark spoke freely and disparagingly of Jeffrey Bond and other whistleblowers—without whom Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity might be molesting students still. I was saddened, but not surprised, when Clark sought out former students of his, some of whom I was told were still under the legal drinking age, and joined them in getting thoroughly intoxicated. He approached me late one evening to complain that he and his former students had run out of alcohol. I told him there was wine in a nearby cupboard. “Did you want red or white?” I asked. “We don’t give a shit at this point,” he replied, the boys shuffling their feet behind him, waiting for his further supply of alcohol. It was near midnight when I went to bed, and Clark and the boys were still carousing. The next day he complained of a headache at lunch. Not much later, he asked again where he could find a drink.
It was just a few weeks later that I learned that Clark’s school would be moving onto the campus of my own college. Several students and concerned parents, having heard of the merger between St. Gregory’s and TMC, began to contact the college’s president, William Fahey. Why hadn’t he announced the merger himself until days before the semester began? Was he aware of the sordid history of St. Gregory’s Academy? And most importantly, why had he hired as recruiters and teachers of 18-year-old freshmen a troupe of young men who were once the personal confidantes (and according to one of their colleagues, were still defenders) of Fr. Urrutigoity?
St. Gregory’s Invades My College
Fahey complained to one student that people were reacting “irrationally.” After all, he had read the relevant documents himself, and “civil and Church authorities [did not find] anything illegal or actionable against the accused priest Fr. Urroitigoity,[sic] after many years of investigation.” He did not mention that the priest's Society and diocese had been forced to make a joint settlement of over $400,000, or that Urrutigoity had soon after fled to Paraguay while his Society was officially suppressed. Fahey reminded the student of Fr. Urrutigoity’s “standing as a priest, whose faculties are still valid.” In Urrutigoity’s defense, he cited the fact that the priest had been cleared by Fr. Benedict Groeschel—the same friar who referred to Penn State sex abuser Jerry Sandusky as “this poor guy,” and who suggested that priests are frequently the victims of “seductive” teenage boys.
Fahey waffled about Urrutigoity’s guilt. He admitted it in an email to a student at one point, but when a concerned mother later raised the issue of current TMC staff and faculty who had been close with Fr. Urrutigoity and, in one case, defended him in court, Fahey insisted: “[W]ith respect to Fr. Urroitigoity, I cannot say much more than I do not wish to judge when other more competent that I have already done so and Fr. Urroitigoity is still a priest in good standing.”
Citing powerful Church authorities who aided in the coverup, Fahey dismissed the “John Doe” testimony out of hand. “Many of the … accusations rest largely on the testimony of one very troubled boy from the Academy,” he wrote to a parent. “If you sift through the court documents of the central case … what emerges is that that [sic] this accuser had very serious alcohol and substance abuse problems.” What Fahey failed to mention is that Mr. Doe had developed those problems at a school where, according to depositions, priests got teenage boys drunk while administrators such as Howard Clark looked on.
Perhaps it was fitting that during the 2012 commencement exercises at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (at which I was still a junior), the keynote speaker spent some 25 minutes extolling the wit and wisdom of Bernard Cardinal Law. I wanted nothing to do with St. Gregory’s Academy, so a few weeks after I heard they were coming, even though it was my senior year and my decision would cost me thousands in lost financial aid, I transferred out of TMC to finish my degree at another college.
Having escaped prosecution in the United States (thanks to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations) and fled to Paraguay, Father Carlos Urrutigoity succeeded in keeping up the work he loves the most—providing “spiritual direction” to adolescents. He also climbed the ladder of ecclesiastical respectability in his diocese, where until last month he served as second-in-command with Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este. Last week, Pope Francis removed both men from their positions. One would hope this would put an end to Urrutigoity's career, but the charismatic priest is always able to attract advocates to his cause. Already the prominent Vatican reporting site Chiesa Espresso has published a defense of the "[ideologically persecuted]" Bishop Livieres and his right hand man, Fr. Urrutigoity, who "bears the burden of a long and harsh defamation campaign in the U.S. full of calumnies...." This same piece claims that Urrutigoity's "heterosexuality was confirmed professionally by two independent psychological evaluations, one of which was conducted in the U.S. and the other in Canada." In fact, the Canadian Southdown Institute's evaluation led the Diocese of Scranton's Independent Review Board to recommend that "Father Carlos Urrutigoity should be removed from active ministry; his faculties should be revoked; he should be asked to live privately." The other evaluation was performed by the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel, whose reputation for giving predators a pass is widely considered a scandal in itself, his many good works notwithstanding.
Howard Clark and his team wintered for a year at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and have since found the property and funding needed to refound their school as Gregory the Great Academy in Pennsylvania. I wonder if they will bring Fr. Urrutigoity back someday as chaplain.
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