For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.
The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.
The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.
“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.
Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.
The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.
Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.
The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.
Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.
The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.
Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.
“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”
“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.
Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.
“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.
“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”
Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.
The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.
Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.
These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.
The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014
The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.
A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.
For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.
Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”
He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.
“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.
She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.
Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.
The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.
“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.
Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.
“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.
But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.
“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.
At least four senior clerics outside West Virginia who received parishioner complaints about Bransfield also accepted cash gifts from him, more than $32,000 in all, according to an analysis of letters and other documents obtained by The Post.
The previously unreported Quirk letter and the complaints from parishioners raise questions about when Catholic leaders first knew of Bransfield’s conduct and why they took no action for years. They also reveal the roots of a church financial scandal that exploded into public view in June with a Washington Post account of the findings of a Vatican-ordered investigation of Bransfield.
Five lay investigators concluded early this year that Bransfield abused his authority by sexually harassing young priests and spending church money on personal luxuries, according to their final report and other documents obtained by The Post. Bransfield spent $2.4 million on travel, often flying in private jets, as well as $4.6 million in all to renovate his church residence, church records show. His cash gifts to fellow clergymen totaled $350,000, the records show.
Bransfield drew on a little-known source of money for the diocese: millions of dollars in annual revenue from oil wells in west Texas, on land that was donated to the diocese a century ago. The wells have yielded an average of about $15 million annually in recent years.
Bransfield wrote more than 500 checks to other clerics during his 13 years in West Virginia, gifts for which he was reimbursed by the diocese. The recipients who also received parishioner complaints include Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then the nuncio, the pope’s ambassador to the United States; Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the leader of the church’s judicial authority in Rome; Archbishop Peter Wells, then a senior administrator in the pope’s Secretariat of State at the Vatican; and Lori, the archbishop in Baltimore who later oversaw the Vatican investigation launched after Quirk’s account.
Bransfield’s generosity with church money extended beyond the cash gifts. In 2013, Viganò accepted a half-hour ride on a jet chartered by Bransfield at a cost to the West Virginia diocese of about $200 a minute, documents and interviews show.
In statements, Wells, Burke and Lori said the gifts did not influence how they responded to parishioners’ complaints.
Viganò said he did not recall receiving complaints and did not give Bransfield favorable treatment. He said he gave the monetary gifts to charity shortly after receiving them. He said he did not know the private jet provided by Bransfield to an event in West Virginia was paid for by the diocese.
In a phone interview, Bransfield defended his spending as bishop, saying it was justified and approved by financial managers at the diocese. He said many of his accomplishments in West Virginia, including expanding a church-owned hospital and renovating schools, had been overshadowed by the scandal.
Bransfield denied that the monetary gifts were an effort to buy influence. He said he was already successful and did not need favors or special treatment.
“They could do nothing for me,” he said. “I was at the top of my game.”
Quirk did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Raising concern for years
Parishioners provided their emails and letters about Bransfield following The Post’s story in early June. In interviews, some said they had long wondered why no one had acted on their complaints.
“We felt like there was something up,” said Kellee Abner, an anesthesiologist from Charleston, W.Va. “It is difficult to understand how all the attempts to expose conduct in the diocese could have been ignored by so many for so long.”
Since the Post story was published, at least a dozen Catholic clerics, including Lori, have pledged to return money to the diocese of West Virginia. Many said they had not been aware that the money came from church coffers.
In 2005, soon after Bransfield arrived in Wheeling, W.Va., concerns about his spending became public. The Charleston Gazette-Mail wrote articles in 2006 and 2013 that drew attention to some of his extravagances, noting that Bransfield had a driver, personal chef and a fondness for architectural refinements, such as cherry-wood paneling.
The 2013 story said parishioners accused Bransfield of “living too profligate a lifestyle” and failing to follow Pope Francis’s prescription of a modest life for clerics. The next year, the New York Times cited that account in a broader story about financial excesses in the church.
At the time, Bransfield spokesman Bryan Minor described the bishop’s spending as reasonable. He said that Bransfield’s chef saved the diocese money because he also catered church events.
In the interview with The Post, Bransfield defended the spending on his residence, saying water damage related to a fire in a bathroom was greater than what is reflected in the lay investigators’ report. “I did a restoration,” he said, adding that from his prior position in Washington he was accustomed to living in a finely appointed home.
Through it all, Bransfield maintained a prominent, sometimes controversial public profile.
He regularly traveled to the Vatican while serving as treasurer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and president of the board of trustees for the Papal Foundation, a group that channels money from wealthy Catholic contributors into charitable projects favored by the pope.
In 2012, news accounts reported that Bransfield was mentioned by a witness in a Philadelphia sexual abuse trial involving a local priest. The witness testified that the priest on trial once told him that Bransfield had sex with a teenage boy. Bransfield issued a statement vehemently denying the claim. That same year, Bransfield was the subject of news stories when authorities in Philadelphia reopened an investigation into a separate allegation that he had fondled a teenage boy decades earlier while working as a teacher at a Catholic high school. Bransfield denied ever sexually abusing anyone. No charges were brought.
Bransfield told The Post a diocese investigation into the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing.
Some parishioners grumbled about Bransfield from the start. But their anger boiled over in 2012, when Bransfield ordered that a pastor, the Rev. Jim Sobus, be relocated from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Huntington to a remote parish.
Sobus had criticized the church and Bransfield’s management, and a handful of parishioners had complained to the diocese about the way Sobus managed a Catholic school and meted out discipline.
Scores of parishioners wrote to Bransfield or signed petitions praising Sobus in unsuccessful appeals to keep him at his home parish, documents show. Sobus was later suspended for failing to report to his new assignment.
Complaints to the Vatican
Parishioners also reached out to Lori, Viganò and clerics at the Vatican, in letters that sometimes contrasted Bransfield’s spending with the modest lifestyle of “Father Jim.”
On Nov. 5, 2012, a Catholic activist named Christine Pennington wrote to Lori to complain that Bransfield had a rectory “renovated in high style — granite kitchen, stainless steel appliances, tile floor, all new high end (Thomasville style) furniture,” the letter shows.
“At the very least, he has not been a good steward & these are perfect examples,” Pennington wrote.
Six days later, Kellee Abner, the anesthesiologist, sent an email to Lori with the subject line: “Confidential and Urgent for Archbishop William Lori.” The note said she had a matter of “utmost and urgent” need.
Abner said she received a call back from a Lori spokesman, Sean Caine, and the two discussed her concerns about relocating Sobus. Abner said they also spoke about Bransfield’s spending on personal luxuries — such as the lavish renovation of his residence and offices.
“It was, ‘This guy is corrupt’ and he was trying to crush us,” Abner recalled.
Caine told her that Lori had no authority to investigate or discipline Bransfield, she said. “He told me, ‘Take it to Rome,’ ” she said.
Caine told The Post he does not recall the details of that conversation.
In an interview, he acknowledged that Lori received a long, detailed letter from a parishioner about Bransfield’s spending on home renovations. Lori considered the complaints “speculative in nature” and beyond his authority to investigate, Caine said.
Even so, Caine said, Lori called Bransfield and raised the concerns with him. “Nothing in that conversation led [Lori] to believe there was anything like the extent of spending, or the potential misuse of church funds, that would be revealed” by the later investigation, Caine said.
Lori began receiving checks from Bransfield in May 2012, the same month he became archbishop, and accepted them annually through 2017. He received a total of $10,500, church records show. After The Post raised questions about the gifts, Lori said he would return $7,500. He said the other $3,000 was paid as stipends and travel reimbursements for celebrating two Masses in the West Virginia diocese.
Abner did take her complaints to Rome, sending Cardinal Burke a 10-page fax about an alleged campaign by Bransfield’s team against Sobus, according to receipts she provided to The Post.
“I beg for help from you Father,” she wrote in February 2013. “We need to stand up for the Truth as Jesus would want us, but we also need those who will stand with us.”
Burke did not respond to her appeals, she said.
“I’m sure that people within the church knew about Bransfield,” she told The Post. “There was a whole year of pressure and communication.”
Burke received 15 checks from 2008 to 2017 worth a total of $9,700, church records show.
Burke said in a statement that he did not know Bransfield well but that Bransfield regularly asked him to meet with priests who accompanied Bransfield to Rome. Burke said some of the checks were honoraria for these talks about his work at the Vatican. Others were gifts Bransfield sent on holidays or to mark Burke’s ordination as a cardinal, he said.
He said he donated the money to charity. “A Cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favor pertaining to his office and work,” Burke said in the statement. “In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield, I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry.”
Alerting the pope’s ambassador
Viganò, the pope’s representative in Washington, received multiple letters in 2013 that raised questions about Bransfield’s lavish life amid the poverty of West Virginia, documents show.
In March 2013, Christine Pennington, who had earlier written to Lori, sent Viganò a short letter about “the life of luxury, self-centeredness, & abuse of power by Bishop Michael Bransfield, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.”
“To verify my facts, below is a news article from the Charleston, Gazette (WV) outlining the beginning of a ‘spending spree,’ ” she wrote.
The article’s headline reads: “Renovations to Bishop’s House Top $1 Million.”
“West Virginia’s Catholic diocese has spent well over $1 million this year on renovations to houses for Bishop Michael Bransfield, including the addition of a 13-foot-long sunken bar and a 100-square-foot wine cellar,” says the story’s first sentence.
In May, Viganò received a blunt but less detailed letter from Joanna Brown, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church.
“Bishop Bransfield has been enjoying a self-indulgent lifestyle,” Brown wrote in a letter that was copied to two other clerics in Rome. “I want to know why this is being allowed when Pope Francis is preaching the opposite.”
In a letter that same month sent to Viganò and copied to cardinals in Rome, parishioners Robert and Virginia Hickman echoed Brown’s complaint.
“There are so many ‘stories about the lifestyle of the hierarchy of our Diocese that one should investigate for themselves to verify facts,” the Hickmans wrote. “Your inquiry and review of all matters in the DIOCESE OF WHEELING/CHARLESTON would be a blessing for all parishioners.”
In July 2013, during the flurry of letters, Viganò joined Bransfield in Mount Hope, W.Va., to celebrate Mass at a Jamboree attended by 10,000 Boy Scouts. Viganò told The Post that he had been stranded at an airport in Charlotte on his way to the event and called Bransfield to let him know. Bransfield sent a chartered jet to pick him up.
Church documents and flight records show a seven-seat Learjet was dispatched to pick up Viganò in North Carolina, flying him 35 minutes to Charleston, W.Va. The flight cost the diocese $7,687, church financial records show.
Viganò told The Post that he had no reason to suspect the private jet travel was improper. He said he assumed “a generous benefactor” had paid for the jet, citing Bransfield’s role as president of a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars from prominent laypeople, the Papal Foundation.
“Given these facts, there was no reason for me to investigate or report anything to the Vatican,” Viganò said.
Viganò received two checks worth $1,000 each that year, one in March and the other in December, and $6,000 in all from Bransfield from 2011 to 2015, church records show.
Viganò said he does not recall receiving letters about Bransfield’s conduct during his time as nuncio.
“That said, the Nunciature receives many complaints about all sorts of matters every day,” he wrote, adding that it was possible letters about Bransfield were not brought to his attention.
The Nunciature in Washington did not return several messages and emails requesting comment.
Viganò’s predecessor Pietro Sambi received $20,500 in cash gifts from Bransfield before his death in 2011.
Viganò added that he had heard “rumors” that Bransfield was harassing young priests and misusing diocese money on personal expenses but that those rumors were “never substantiated.”
Without elaborating, he said Bransfield once called directly to preempt a rumor of sexual misconduct. “On one occasion,” Viganò said, “he called me to alert me that I might hear about possible accusations against him. He denied any wrongdoing.”
Caine, Lori’s spokesman, offered a different account, citing internal documents he would not release. He said “that as early as May 2013 that the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, was aware of concerns about spending by Bishop Bransfield.”
In August 2015, Sobus himself wrote a three-page letter to Pope Francis to complain about Bransfield’s “unjust administration of our diocese.” Sobus raised concerns about a custom-made fireplace in the bishop’s office, personal companions who traveled first-class with Bransfield abroad at church expense and other luxuries.
“You spoke about the lavish lifestyles of clergy and the poor witness they give. Bishop Bransfield has remodeled and renovated several properties owned by this diocese to use as his mansions. He has spent millions of dollars doing so,” Sobus wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. “Newspaper reporters have spoken out against his lavish lifestyle. Please note, this diocese is located in the poorest state in the US!”
A few weeks later, Sobus received a brief note from Wells, the chief of staff at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. “I assure you that a copy of your letter has been forwarded to the Congregation for the Clergy, which has competence over such matters,” Wells wrote.
A spokesman for Wells told The Post his involvement ended there.
Wells accepted $6,500 from Bransfield in 13 checks from 2009 to 2015, records show.
“Archbishop Wells, then Monsignor Wells, never knew, nor suspected, that the gifts in question — usually received around Christmas and Easter by personal check — were derived from diocesan funds. Archbishop Wells had absolutely no knowledge that Church patrimony was being harmed by receipt of these gifts,” the spokesman said. “Importantly, Bishop Bransfield neither requested nor received favored treatment of any kind from Archbishop Wells.”
In a February 2016 letter, an archbishop from the Congregation of the Clergy urged Sobus to show obedience to the church and, as a solution to his problem, to reach out to Bransfield for “the good of your soul.”
“The bishop of Wheeling-Charleston appears quite ready to make some provisions for you,” wrote Archbishop Joel Mercier.
The inside account
In August 2018, the claims against Bransfield took on a new significance when Monsignor Quirk, a vicar and one of Bransfield’s closest aides, became a whistleblower. Quirk wrote a scathing eight-page letter to Lori, the Baltimore archbishop, that drew on years of close observations of Bransfield’s conduct.
“I present the following as reason for this request, which I realize to be extraordinary in nature but which I judge to be in keeping with the demands for justice, as a means to repair scandal already caused and to prevent its further spread, and to protect the faithful of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston from further harm,” Quirk wrote on Aug. 8, in a letter that was ultimately distributed to multiple people.
Quirk, 52, is a canon lawyer who served as Bransfield’s judicial adviser and played a prominent role in church operations and Bransfield’s personal affairs.
In his letter to Lori, Quirk justified his decision to turn on Bransfield, citing his firsthand accounts of drug and alcohol abuse and sexual harassment, along with Bransfield’s excessive personal spending.
“The effects of alcohol abuse appear to be increasing, impairing his Excellency’s ability to function, such that it can be said that he is impaired from dinner time each evening until lunch time the next day,” Quirk wrote. “[H]e is intentionally using Vicodin so that he is at least medicated if not high while exercising the Pontificals.”
Quirk said he witnessed Bransfield inappropriately hugging young priests and caressing their faces, and he alleged that Bransfield “takes a prurient interest in certain men, even coaxing shirtless photographs of them, which he retains on his cellphone.”
Quirk provided inside financial documents to support his claims that Bransfield spent excessively on personal luxuries, the letter said. That included almost $134,000 over five years on flowers for friends and $55,000 in other gifts such as hams and fruit baskets, according to the letter. Quirk also wrote that Bransfield installed a $161,000 custom-made floor for two rooms in a townhouse that was being renovated for his use in his retirement — and later decided to live elsewhere because the townhouse was too small.
Bransfield told The Post that he did not abuse alcohol or prescription medicine, adding that “no one has seen me inebriated.” He said any photographs of shirtless men on his cellphone had been sent to him and were innocuous. He acknowledged ordering the custom floors and sending flowers, hams and other gifts but said he did not know the costs involved.
In describing the cash gifts Bransfield gave to other clergy, Quirk used the term “simony” — the buying or selling of church offices or positions. Quirk wrote that Bransfield’s gifts to Catholic leaders and young priests “were corrupting these relationships into utilitarian bonds of dependence.”
He asked Lori to help arrange for Bransfield to be removed and replaced by someone from outside the state.
The lay investigative team was appointed by Lori one month later. Their report, delivered to Lori in February, faulted Quirk and two other vicars for enabling Bransfield’s conduct and called for their dismissal.
Before sending it to the Vatican in March, Lori ordered that the names of recipients of cash gifts, including his own name, be removed.
Lori told The Post that including the names of senior clerics who received money from Bransfield might have suggested that “there were expectations for reciprocity,” adding that “no evidence was found to suggest this.”
Several days after the Post story about the Bransfield investigation, the diocese announced that Quirk and two other vicars had resigned.
In a recent video statement, Lori acknowledged that “Bishop Bransfield engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending.”
Lori said he could not explain how it happened.
“Friends, there is no excuse, nor adequate explanation that will satisfy the troubling question of how Bishop Bransfield’s behavior was allowed to continue for as long as it did without the accountability that we must require for those who have been entrusted with so much, both spiritual and material,” Lori said.
On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.
But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.
It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.
Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”
The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.
“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.
Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.
And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.
But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.
She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”
St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.
Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.
St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”
Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.
Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.
“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.
When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.
“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”
These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.
At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.
“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.
St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.
Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.
Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.
For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.
“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”
St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”
“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”
Walk into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge on a Sunday morning and you’ll find the trappings and sacraments of a typical parish.
From the kneeling parishioners to the priests in robes dispensing Holy Communion, there are few signs of divergence from tradition.
There is, however, one stark, if less apparent, difference: The priest leading the service, the Rev. Geety Reyes, is openly gay.
St. Francis of Assisi and two kindred churches in Kearny and Long Branch, belong to the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement founded in the Garden State nearly 10 years ago. ANCC affilates mirror the Roman Catholic Church in most respects, except those elements that members find judgmental or discriminatory.
“We believe in an all-inclusive, loving God,” Reyes tells New Jersey Monthly. “We tend to be progressive, but we are conservative in that we embrace the Gospel.”
The ANCC also embraces numerous innovations the Vatican rejects, including gay, married and female priests, gay marriage and divorce. Transgender, nonbinary and gender-fluid members are also welcome. The ANCC also supports a reproductive choice.
“We don’t see ourselves as a new church,” says the Most Rev. George R. Lucey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi. Lucey, who is also openly gay, was instrumental in founding the ANCC in Glen Ridge in 2009 and presides as bishop over all 10 ANCC parishes in seven states. “We see ourselves as united to the same church that was founded by Christ.”
Catholic Church officialdom begs to differ. Asked to comment on the ANCC and its place in Catholic faith, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Newark provided this statement: “It would be inappropriate for us to make any comment about the American National Catholic Church other than to state that this group is not in union with the Catholic Church in Rome, so they are not in union with the Holy Father. We will leave it at that.”
New parishioners come to the ANCC for a variety of reasons. “I was not happy with the way that the whole bad-priests scandal was handled,” says Loretta Marches, a five-year member of the ANCC parish in Glen Ridge, her hometown. “I have a strong Catholic faith, but many misgivings with the Catholic Church. I found the [ANCC] website and contacted them because it was exactly what I was looking for—none of the politics and the exclusion of certain people.”
The ANCC’s three New Jersey parishes have more than 1,500 members, up from 1,000 in 2016 and 500 in 2014, Lucey says. Nationwide, ANCC claims about 2,000 parishioners; Lucey expects new parishes in the coming months in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Baltimore, Maryland.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, between 2007 and 2014, Catholicism nationwide saw a “greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.” The report further states that 13 percent of all U.S. adults “are former Catholics,” a higher rate than any other religion. But the same report found that only 2 percent of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism—that is, people who now identify as Catholic after being raised in another religion (or with no religion).
A native of the Philippines, Reyes joined the ANCC church as a parishioner. He was ordained as a deacon in 2012 and as a priest three years later.
“I was raised Roman Catholic; I wanted to follow it,” says Reyes, 43. Unfortunately, his gay identity made him feel uncomfortable in the Roman Catholic church. Then he learned about the ANCC.
“One of our taglines when we preach is that we are Catholics without judgment,” he says.
ANCC leaders estimate there are about 400 independent Catholic jurisdictions in the United States—all unaffiliated with Rome. ANCC appears to be the largest group among the Garden State’s Catholic alternatives. Others in New Jersey include Good Shepherd Reformed Catholic Church in Toms River, and the Saints Peter and Paul Polish National Catholic Church in Passaic.
“We don’t exist as an axe to grind against Rome; we don’t really fight with anybody,” Lucey explains. “[Parishioners] come in and it’s a little like being home. There’s a great comfort in that. If people are attracted to us, it is because they see in the expression—which the Catholic Church has always taught, but has gotten away from—that God accepts and loves all of us for who we are.”
Reyes says that while many St. Francis of Assisi parishioners are gay, the parish has just as many traditional families with moms, dads and children. “It is becoming more and more mixed,” he says.
None of ANCC’s three New Jersey parishes has its own chapel. St. Francis of Assisi leases a small chapel behind the much larger Glen Ridge Congregational Church. Our Lady of Guadalupe American National Catholic Church, founded in 2011, borrows space in St. James Episcopal Church in Long Branch. The Sacred Heart of Jesus American National Catholic Church, launched in 2013, holds mass in Kearny’s Grace United Methodist Church.
That doesn’t seem to bother parishioners. “What is important to me is the lack of restrictions on how people find their spirituality. This church respects their right to worship,” says Hap Walter Bojsza, a West Orange resident who joined the Glen Ridge parish four years ago. “Our liturgies are the same Catholic liturgies, our readings are the same week after week. There are no dogmatic differences. The only difference is who is welcomed, and that is everybody.”
An Air Force veteran and father of two daughters, Bojsza says he was raised a Catholic, but left for many reasons—including his concerns about pedophile priests.
Jim Capobianco of Kearny left the Catholic Church for ANCC five years ago, after attending a Christmas Eve mass in which the priest’s homily attacked pro-choice views.
“That kind of did it for us,” recalls Capobianco, a married father of three. “The Roman Catholic Church has clung to ideals, and I respect that,” he adds. “But I also feel like there seems to be an inability to change. They seem more out of touch with the world that we live in.”
Suzanne Ryan, a divorced Maplewood mother and teacher, attended two Catholic churches close to home in recent years, but found them lacking. “I wanted a more vibrant church that was involved in social justice,” she says of her switch to ANCC four years ago. “I needed to feel that the church did what it was really supposed to do—a message of love and openness. I wanted a community where everything was inclusive and participatory.”
ANCC has had at least one brush with trouble. Leo Donaldson, a former cantor and musician at the Glen Ridge parish, was suspended in 2016 from his church duties after being arrested on sexual-assault charges relating to his roles as a Bloomfield High School teacher and coach.
He pled guilty in 2018 to charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and official misconduct and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. None of the allegations related to his time at the ANCC church.
Asked to comment, Lucey says, “We have a policy of background checks [for church leaders] and two adults with children at all times, and only in public space. I am grateful we followed our procedure and am keeping Leo in our prayers.”
All ANCC’s priests have other vocations and serve unpaid. Some were ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition; some defected from other churches. Priests can also be ordained under the auspices of the ANCC, a process that includes theology courses through the University of Notre Dame online, and training at a local parish.
Lucey, 64, took a winding road to the ANCC. A native of the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken, Lucey has followed parallel paths of ministry and counseling. He holds an M.S. in education and a PhD. in psychology. He became a Franciscan Friar in 1998. Ordained a Franciscan bishop, he served in ministerial roles in Canada and Mexico. He also worked briefly for the Diocese of Paterson as director of Hope House, a program for HIV and AIDS patients in Dover.
Lucey was ordained as a priest in the Independent Catholic Movement in 2005. Following his ordination, he resigned from the diocese. “It felt like a conflict,” he says. “I couldn’t be working for the Roman Catholic Church and be part of a group that wasn’t Roman Catholic.”
Lucey remained in New Jersey, working as a counselor and psychotherapist and living in West Orange with Bill, his partner of 15 years. At one point, Lucey worked at a hospital in Summit as a counselor and launched a “spirituality unit” there for gay and lesbian patients suffering from physical or chemical abuse.
“I just started asking them what they thought about the Gospel, and they asked me to do it for the entire hospital,” he says. He began holding Sunday Mass, including gay and lesbian weddings. “I started to do more weddings, and people asked where I celebrated Mass.”
Eventually, Lucey began performing eucharistic services in his home on Sunday nights. His next step was to launch his own parish. Inclusiveness was central to his vision.
“As we are committed to acknowledging the Catholic teaching of the dignity of the human person because they are created in the image of God, it follows then that God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, does not make mistakes,” Lucey says. “Then there must be an image of God who is gay, straight, transgender and nonbinary.”
The West Long Branch parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, took a different road to ANCC affiliation. A former Roman Catholic church with a predominantly Spanish-speaking membership, it faced upheaval in 2009 when the Diocese of Trenton ordered it to consolidate with two nearby churches to form a single parish, Christ the King.
Some Our Lady of Guadalupe members and leaders objected and eventually left the diocese, formed a new parish and joined the ANCC in 2011. Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell decried the move as illegitimate, stating at the time that “no Catholic Church is independent.”
But theology experts say these new forms of Catholicism are valid expressions of change in religious thinking.
“There is a kind of legitimacy in that these people wanted to be Catholic and are doing Catholic things,” says Dugan McGinley, a teaching instructor in the religion department at Rutgers University. “I think that is legitimately and effectively Catholic, although it is not officially recognized.”
Julie Byrne, author of The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016) and the Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, agrees. “There really is no trademark on the word Catholic,” she says. “When [Roman Catholic leaders] say [independents] are not Catholic, they are trying to trademark the Catholic name….To me, if you say you are Catholic, you are Catholic.”
The Rev. Paul Gulya, pastor of the Sacred Heart ANCC Church in Kearny, says his church opens its doors to all “who are feeling left out or broken-hearted and marginalized.”
Gulya, who is gay and married, was ordained in 1981 in the diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In time, he felt distanced from fellow priests because he questioned the church’s rules.
“For me it was an issue of independence,” he remembers. “I found that rectory living wasn’t for me. You were living with people whom you didn’t necessarily share the same ideals or ministerial vision with.”
Mother Phyllis McHugh, a former Roman Catholic nun who spent 10 years with the Sisters of the Roman Family of Nazareth in Philadelphia, was the first woman incardinated as an ANCC priest. She had left Roman Family many years before to teach. She later married and is now a mother and grandmother. McHugh was ordained a priest in 2011 at St. Jude’s Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the ANCC church in the Philadelphia area. A second woman is set to be ordained this year at the ANCC parish in Bridgeport.
Admitting divorcees is also a founding principle for ANCC. “Why would we withhold the sacrament at a time when people need it the most?” Lucey says. “If they are coming to us, the assumption is that they are in a moral or spiritual dilemma.”
Decisions on day-to-day matters are left to the local parishes, Lucey says. However, each parish must celebrate Mass with the liturgy of Vatican II and perform the same seven sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church,” Lucey declares, “is the church that came from the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ and [was] proclaimed publicly at Pentecost.”
When God died, the official cause was elderly enfeeblement; after reading Frédéric Martel’s exposé of infamy in the Catholic church, I suspect that the old boy committed suicide in remorse, aghast at the crimes and un-Christian sins of organised religion.
Although Martel’s book is published just in time to spoil a pious conference on clerical paedophilia convened by the pope, the abuse of minors is not all that St Peter’s pharisaical heirs have to answer for. The Vatican combines a venality that the mafia might envy with a bigotry worthy of Steve Bannon (who not coincidentally was in Rome for last week’s gathering), and to this already foul mixture it adds an unctuous hypocrisy. The moral fraudulence of the church is Martel’s subject: having spent four years sleuthing in all corners of the Catholic world, he establishes that during the past few papacies the fieriest critics of homosexuality – the cardinals who regarded Aids as a divine judgment, condemned the distribution of condoms in Africa, called gender theory an abomination, and ignored peccadilloes like those of the Cuban priest who administered a special blessing to the penises of little boys – were themselves unabashedly gay.
Some of them cruised in Roman parks, claiming diplomatic immunity whenever they were bothered by the police; others used their smartphones to summon Arab hustlers. Many attended infernally red-lit orgies in the Vatican, with party drugs and strapping seminarians on tap, and quite a few rejoiced in drag-queen nicknames. One financially canny episcopal plutocrat added Rome’s busiest gay sauna to his bulging property portfolio. Martel includes a single incongruously heterosexual anecdote, about a prince of the church who died of a heart attack in Paris while having overenergetic sex with a prostitute called Mimi. Jesuitical spin doctors claimed he’d paid her a visit in the hope of persuading her to repent, which didn’t explain why he was naked when the ambulance arrived.
Is all this a symptom of bad faith, or perhaps of closeted self-disgust? No, it simply reveals the convenient duplicity of Catholicism: as André Gide put it, after the theologian Jacques Maritain failed to dissuade him from publishing his memoir of romps with Arab boys, “I hate lying. That’s where my Protestantism takes refuge. Catholics don’t like the truth.” The scale of the Vatican’s sanctimonious mendacity reminds Martel of the Third Reich, where the euphemisms and evasions of an entire society destroyed “the reality of a common world”.
Visiting a cardinal who is “refined and well pomaded”, Martel is “submerged in a cloud of scent” when he makes a detour to the man’s bathroom and checks his medicine cabinet; inside the Vatican, his astute French nose detects expensive traces of “amber, violet, musk, champaca” when his perfumed interviewees waft towards him. But the prevailing odour in his book is sulphur, a metaphorical stink that alerts Martel to the presence of the devil.
He flinches when introduced to George Pell, the Australian cardinal recently found guilty of sexual abuse in Melbourne (he will be sentenced later this month), whose colleagues in the Vatican treasury called him “Pell Pot” in homage to the bloodthirsty Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Martel manages not to feel frightened on this occasion, but is glad never to have encountered two Latin American priests who strike him as unequivocally “evil”. In Mexico, the “diabolical” Marcial Maciel amassed “insane levels of wealth” and indulged in systematic “sexual violence”, while of course exhibiting pious meekness on public occasions; in Colombia, López Trujillo – like Maciel, now defunct – connived at the murder of dozens of priests and bishops, who were eliminated by paramilitary brigades after he fingered them for their progressive opinions.
Among all this villainy, Martel has a sneaky fondness for Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against homosexuals while flouncing about in natty ermine-lined bonnets and lipstick-red Prada slippers. In one decadent episode, Benedict moons over his hunky chamberlain Georg Gänswein during the younger man’s consecration as an archbishop, caressing his Clooneyesque salt-and-pepper curls for all of 19 enraptured seconds. Despite such florid displays of an apparently platonic affection, Martel sees Benedict as a victim of wishful self-neutering. As Nietzsche remarked, “The saint pleasing to God is the ideal castrato”.
It’s a pity that Martel’s book is so preposterously long and lazily repetitive; lacking an index, it will be useless as a reference work. I also worry a little about its methods. Some highly placed informants are given the benefit of anonymity, and others are lured into confiding or confessing by the flirty signals Martel transmits. “He employs guile with me,” he says during a teasing duel with Pope John Paul II’s former secretary, “and I play with him.” Stray comments reveal a double standard. Thus he denounces Catholic potentates for the luxury in which they live, yet grimaces like a snooty interior decorator when he visits one residence: “The furniture is horrible, as it often is in the Vatican,” he sniffs. The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses. Given the evidence that he has uncovered, I’d say that outrage is the better option.