On the Society of St. John: Sometimes reporters (like me) just can't see the story

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Although I’ve been blogging all summer about various scandals in the Catholic Church, I’d like to include a story in the past that was staring me in the face — yet I absolutely missed it.

It’s a news story about a religious order in northeastern Pennsylvania. Things sounded good in all their fundraising brochures, so I showed up in isolated Shohola, Pa., one day in the summer of 2000, to write them up.

I had no idea there was a ton of sexual abuse going on in their boys’ boarding school in Elmhurst, which was near Scranton. I believed everything told me about this order’s dreams of building a medieval village-style society in the foothills of the Poconos.

Fast forward 18 years to this NBC-TV story.

On Dec. 18, 2001, a desperate North Carolina dad wrote a letter to the Vatican asking the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to discipline a group of priests at a Pennsylvania boys’ boarding school who he said took turns sexually abusing his teenage son.

The priests were members of an organization called the Society of Saint John, the father wrote, and Bishop James Timlin, then the head of the Diocese of Scranton, had allowed them to take up residence at St. Gregory’s Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania.

“How long will the Bishop of Scranton tolerate this Society of Priests and promote them and their plans?” the father, whose name NBC News is not disclosing to protect his son’s identity, asked in the 2001 letter.

All roads, as we will see, eventually lead to an explosive grand jury report that came out of Pennsylvania this summer.

The answer turned out to be two more years. It was not until 2003, after the man’s son filed a federal lawsuit, that the Society of Saint John was finally disbanded in Scranton. The lawsuit accused two of the society’s priests of cultivating “intimate relationships with students” and of plying students “with alcohol, as well as sleeping with them.”

The society was singled out in the scathing grand jury report that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released in August, which included its leader and three members, along with 297 other Pennsylvania clerics that he branded “predator priests.” …

Speaking publicly for the first time since he and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against the Diocese of Scranton, Society of Saint John, St. Gregory’s Academy, Timlin, Urrutigoity and others in March 2002, which eventually led to the society’s demise, “John Doe” said that the abuse by three Society of Saint John priests from 1997 to 2000 nearly wrecked his life. All three were named in the grand jury report.

My Washington Times article on this order ran in August 2000. (Although my byline has been removed, I did write the piece.) Here is a snippet:

SHOHOLA, Pa. — There was a time when the Roman Catholic faith was found everywhere in medieval Europe, where faith and culture were one.

Today, in an American society where faith and culture are mostly at odds, a new order of priests and a handful of families plan to re-create a Catholic medieval city on a 1,025-acre tract on a small mountain overlooking the Delaware River.

With the help of the Internet and computerized mailing lists, the Society of St. John is busily raising $300 million for what could be one of 21st-century America's more unusual social experiments.

"This is not Utopia," the Rev. Eric Ensey, 34, tells visitors. "We are not building the perfect society. We are trying to bring people who are human so we can witness to the beauty of the lifestyle. We wanted to make it possible for people to have access to the sources of the faith, to beauty and a Catholic ambiance."

Back to the NBC story.

To achieve that vision, the society reportedly purchased property in Shohola, Pennsylvania, for $2.2 million in September 1999, with the blessing of Timlin, who co-signed the loan. Before that property was ready, Timlin arranged for the society to be based at St. Gregory’s. At least two students there have accused the society’s priests of abuse, according to court records.

Doe told NBC News that he was 16 in 1997 when Urrutigoity’s right-hand man, the Rev. Eric Ensey, began supplying him with liquor and cigarettes and coercing him to have sex “under the guise of providing spiritual direction,” Doe said.

Whoa. Ensey was the guy I interviewed.

Who knew all this stuff he was doing on the side? I also interviewed Timlin, who is pictured with this piece. He talked up the society, as did a local county commissioner. There was no hint that anything was wrong.

At the time, the Latin Mass was just becoming popular among Gen X’ers, so it seemed likely that someone would try to capitalize on that by creating a community the evoked a Catholicism of some bygone golden age.

Read the entire NBC story to see how this mess unfolded and how everything had collapsed within three years of my visit. I wasn’t the only reporter who was fooled. Other news reports didn’t see the rising storm, either.

What I am trying to say in all this is that reporters are only as good as their sources. At the turn of the century, only the local bishop, many of the male students and the priestly perpetrators themselves knew what was going on.

Plus, my visit was to the site of this future Catholic village, not to the boys’ boarding school 43 miles away.

At the time, five Catholic families had already relocated to Shohola; the site was within commuting distance to New York City; the society had raised at least $200,000 by the time I visited and their fundraising brochures looked very professional.

Conservative Catholics were coming up with major money for various other projects, such as Ave Maria University, which would be founded in 2003 in southwest Florida. So, a planned community of traditionalist Catholics in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods didn’t seem totally improbable. One of my jobs was to have some boots on the ground any time an interesting religious project like this happened (I visited the site for the Ave Maria campus in 2003) so I could be first with the story.

In a way, Ave Maria succeeded where the Shohola project failed. The university and surrounding town are about as close as you’re going to get to a miniature Catholic society. What Shohola taught me is that sexual abuse happens in ultra-conservative places as well as theologically liberal spots. Theology was no barrier to these crimes. What does help is a de-centralized form of government allowing many voices into the mix so that no one group controls how that entity presents itself to the public.

Sometimes I’ve shown up at assignments only to get a gut feeling that something is not right. I didn’t get that feeling when reporting on the Society of St. John, which shows we can’t know everything. And it’s a reminder that even the best of us and the most dedicated do not have X-ray vision and might miss the story.

I don’t think I made that same mistake again. News about the society began spilling out a few years later and it was a lesson to me to not take anything for granted, no matter how benign the appearance. In later years, when more abuse stories cropped up under my watch, I was more aware of the evil that lurks. Reporters can and do miss stories right under their nose. What’s important is that we learn from it the first time.

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