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TRR photo by Tom Kane
Bishop James Timlin, of Scranton, speaks candidly about recent problems plaguing the Society of Saint John in Shohola. (Click for larger image)

Finance issues plague priests’ society

Board of advisor members resign

By TOM KANE

SHOHOLA — Allegations of sexual improprieties by two priests are not the only charges being leveled by critics at the Society of Saint John, a group of 17 priests and seminarians living in Shohola.

The society is also accused of numerous extravagant financial practices by members of its board of advisors. So serious are these accusations that a number of the board have resigned and separated themselves from the society.

Bishop pledges support

Despite these accusations, James Timlin, Bishop of Scranton, recently reiterated his  support of the society and its goals.

“In my statement, I said I completely support what they are doing,” he said. “I didn’t say they had to keep the property. I’m not going to kick them when they’re down. If the contributions dry up, they’re going to have to get out of there.”

The bishop was referring to the large property on Route 434 in Shohola, which was purchased by the society two years ago at a cost of $2.9 million, with plans to build a college, a basilica and a community for members of the laity who are enamored of the old Latin liturgy. Some people were planning to move to the site from as far away as California.

The society had permission from the bishop to hold Masses and other liturgical functions in Latin, as was done prior to the Vatican II, a council of bishops that met in Rome between 1963 and 1965. After the Vatican II, Latin was dropped from the Mass and the Roman Ritual in the Catholic church.

A spokesman of the society, Father Dominic O’Connor, denied that the board resignations were about money but were, rather, about disagreements over certain liturgical practices followed by the society.

Players dispute wrongdoing

Two former members of the board, Matthew Sawyer, a wealthy Catholic businessman from Chicago, and John Blewett, another wealthy Catholic layman, disagree with  O’Connor’s statement.

“Blewett and I and at least four others, maybe more, resigned over financial practices [of the society],” Sawyer said. Sawyer produced copies of the society’s furniture bill from Penn Furniture of Scranton, amounting to $134,486. “Who needs furniture that costs that much?” he asked.

Sawyer and Blewett said that they urged the society not to purchase the expensive Shohola property. However, O’Connor said that the advisory board urged them to purchase the property, and denied that anything extravagant or financially irresponsible took place.

Apparently, the bishop disagrees.

“This goes back two years,” Timlin said. “We got hold of these [financial accusations] and we got some financial people to help them get back on track financially. They’re in debt for a couple of million, so they’re not okay.”

O’Connor, disagreeing with the bishop, said the debt is only $500,000.

“But $500,000 is about 50 percent of the Saint John budget,” said Vincent Cioci, a land developer who was an early supporter of the society but recently separated himself from them. “How can you have debts at 50 percent of your budget? If I did that, I’d be out of business in a week.”

Cioci, an entrepreneur and land developer from Long Island, claimed he was told by Bishop Timlin that the society was actively trying to sell the property. “He said it was an albatross around their necks,” Cioci said.

Father O’Connor denied that the society was actively trying to sell. “If someone came along with a great offer, we would possibly consider it, but we are not looking to sell,” he said.

In response to newspaper criticism charging that Cioci, warning that the property was too expensive to develop, had resigned as the society’s land developer this past November, Father Daniel Fullerton, the society’s treasurer, denied that the society had a contract with Cioci.

“That’s ludicrous,” Cioci said. “I have a copy of a contract with them. I formed the Saint  Joseph Enterprises whose only purpose was to develop the property.”

Fullerton was out of town and could not be reached for comment. However, O’Connor reiterated Fullerton’s claim that there was no contract. “We had no legal agreement with Cioci,” he said.

Feasibility study indicated project to cost $12 to $18 million

Early on, Cioci conducted a marketing survey and a feasibility study for the society. “The marketing survey indicated that there were enough people who wanted to be a part of the society’s project, but the feasibility study indicated it would take $12 to $18 million to bring the project to fruition,” he said. “I could not in good conscience condone it. When they ignored me, I left and never returned. That was last November.”

O’Connor claimed the society knew the land development might cost that much, but they wanted to go ahead anyway, depending on whether they could raise the money.

“It’s not even their money; it’s donors’ money,” Cioci said.

The note for the society’s mortgage, amounting to $500,000, was originally donated by Sawyer, who later asked the bishop to free him from it when he became disenchanted with the society’s fiscal practices. “The bishop got another donor to take it off my hands,” Sawyer said.

The note was then taken over by another rich layman who does not wish to be named, who also became disenchanted and asked the bishop to take it away from him. The bishop complied. The Diocese of Scranton now is responsible for the note. The diocese, however, is not responsible for the society’s other debts, Timlin said.

“If worse came to worse, we’d end up with the property and we’d have to sell it,” Timlin said. “The money would be there. They bit off too much instead of starting quietly and slowly, and starting to build. You have to remember they are young, enthusiastic, ambitious and energetic. I don’t think they have a full grasp on the intricacies of an operation like that.”

Bond, who was to be college president, becomes major critic of the society

O’Connor said the society was finding it hard to raise money because of the opposition of one particular critic, Dr. Jeffrey Bond, a former associate of the society who was to be president of the College of Saint Justin Martyr, originally an integral part of the society’s plan.

Bond became disenchanted with the society when he saw that he and his college were not getting a share of the funds being raised. “They were using the college to get funds but didn’t share any of it with us,” he said. “I began thinking of separating from the society. When I learned of the [alleged] sexual improprieties of the two priests, I was convinced that I should separate the college from the society,” Bond said.

When he went to the bishop, the bishop denied him the permission to separate, ignoring his warning regarding the sexual practices of two priests, Bond said.

Timlin strongly denied that the reason for Bond’s rejection of the society was the alleged sexual improprieties. “It was all about money,” Timlin said. “He wanted access to the rich Catholic donors who abandoned the society because of the society’s liturgical practices. It was about liturgy, not sexual improprieties.” Further, “it was the society’s call,” said the bishop. “When they refused to agree to the separation, I had to deny it.”

Both Timlin and O’Connor deny that the sexual allegations had anything to do with Bond’s alienation. However, Bond stated that the bishop knew of the allegations of sexual improprieties and is calling for his resignation.

Society supporters

The society has supporters as well as critics.

“This group of priests is the best thing that ever happened to my family,” said Russell Bateman of South Canaan, PA. “We are blessed to get spiritual benefits from them. Coming here has been awesome for my seven children. I, and a number of others, support these priests in what they are doing.”


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