Sunday, March 2, 2014
Newark archbishop's pricey retirement home spurs backlash as parishioners withhold donations
Mark Mueller Star-Ledger March 2, 2014 Every year, without fail, Joe Ferri writes a $100 check to the Archdiocese of Newark for the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, a fundraising drive that benefits a variety of religious causes. This year, Ferri left the empty envelope on his pew at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Bloomfield. He’s done writing checks. "If this is the only way I can be heard, so be it," said Ferri, 70. "I’m disgusted. The archdiocese is not going to get another penny out of me." Two weeks after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Archbishop John J. Myers is building a 3,000-square-foot addition on the expansive hom e where he will spend his retirement, it appears the work will cost the archdiocese far more than the $500,000 allotted for construction. Parishioners, infuriated by what they call a tone-deaf show of excess at a time when Catholic schools are closing and when the pope has called on bishops to shed the trappings of luxury, say they’re cutting off contributions entirely or sharply curtailing them. Others said they will continue supporting their local parishes but will ignore the annual appeal, which has been heavily promoted in churches over the past month across the archdiocese, home to 1.3 million Catholics in Essex, Hudson, Union and Bergen counties. At stake are millions of dollars that support schools, youth ministries, retired priests and Catholic Charities, the nonprofit agency that runs homeless shelters and provides a wide array of services for the poorest residents. In recent years, the appeal has brought in between $10 million and $11 million annually, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Myers. While acknowledging the good work the church does, the parishioners said they believe their complaints will be ignored if they don’t make the point more indelibly with their pocketbooks. "The only language the church understands is money," said Maria Bozza, 69, who has urged fellow parishioners at Holy Family Church in Nutley to withhold contributions to the archdiocese. "We need to start an ‘empty envelope month’ to replace the archbishop’s annual appeal. If parishioners in every church in the Newark Archdiocese sent in an empty envelope, then they will get the message." Bozza is among hundreds of people who contacted The Star-Ledger about the addition to the Hunterdon County home, which Myers will make his primary residence when he is replaced by his co-archbishop, Bernard Hebda, upon his retirement in 2016. Myers now chiefly uses the house as a weekend retreat, Goodness has said. Most of the parishioners who reached out to the newspaper live in the Archdiocese of Newark. But dozens of people from the Paterson, Metuchen and Trenton dioceses said they, too, are withholding weekly contributions in protest. "Unfortunately, this is going to hurt giving everywhere," said the Rev. John Bambrick, pastor of a parish in Jackson Township, part of the Diocese of Trenton, and an occasional critic of Myers’ leadership. "Beyond the archdiocese, Catholics begin to question, ‘Does my bishop do this? Does my bishop live like this?’ It’s very similar to the abuse crisis in that the acts of one person affect all of us." Bambrick said he understands parishioners’ frustration. Many priests share it, he said, but are unwilling to speak out publicly. "The average priest lives in two rooms with a bathroom, and the pope lives in a hotel room," Bambrick said, a reference Pope Francis’ decision to live in a guest house instead of the papal palace. "I don’t understand why a 75-year-old man needs a 7,500-square-foot mansion with two swimming pools." Parishioners, Bambrick said, are now faced with a dilemma. By refusing to donate, he said, they are most certainly sending a message. But they’re also depriving the neediest residents of care, he said. "It does hurt the poor," Bambrick said. "As priests, that’s the hardest thing for us. It doesn’t hurt the archbishop. There’s no way to hold him accountable. But the poor are held accountable for his bad decisions." In church last Sunday and in parish bulletins, some pastors forcefully pushed back against the notion Myers had done anything wrong, exhorting parishioners to continue giving and characterizing coverage of the renovation by The Star-Ledger and other news outlets as anti-Catholic. "For the love of God, the media is our devil," the Rev. Peter Palmisano, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church in Garfield, wrote in the Feb. 28 bulletin. "DO NOT LET OPINIONS stand in the way of us doing God’s work, living the Gospel and helping the archbishop do the same. PLEASE — if you have not yet made your appeal to the (archdiocese) — make it now." An elegant retreat The archdiocese paid $700,000 for the existing 4,500-square-foot home in 2002, using funds from the sale of a Shore house once used by retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, Goodness has said. The Hunterdon County home — situated on 8.2 wooded acres in Franklin Township, part of the Diocese of Metuchen — has five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage and a basement office, according to documents on file in the municipal building. An elevator was installed in 2011 at a cost of about $35,000, the records show. A large, kidney-shaped swimming pool sits behind the structure. The house was assessed last year at $776,000, with taxes of nearly $19,000. The archdiocese, a tax-exempt organization, has paid the property tax each year because the house is not primarily used for religious functions, Goodness said. The three-story addition, now under construction, will add 3,000 square feet and will include a bedroom with a sitting area, a large study with an attached library, a full-floor "gallery" on the third level, two bathrooms, three fireplaces and its own elevator. A "wellness room" will contain a 14-foot by 7-foot exercise pool and an adjoining whirlpool tub, identified on blueprints as a hot tub. Goodness said the addition’s cost will be borne by the sale of other properties, chiefly a Connecticut house once used by retired Archbishop Peter Gerety, who now lives in a residence for retired priests in Rutherford. Donors also have contributed to the renovation, Goodness said, but he has declined to say how much the restricted donations amount to. Under no circumstances, he said, will funds from the annual appeal be used for the construction or for ancillary costs, such as furnishing the home or landscaping work. In a lengthy statement Friday, the spokesman urged parishioners to support the fundraising drive, saying it "all goes to people in need." More than 50 percent of contributions — or more than $5 million — is earmarked for Catholic schools, he said. Another $3 million goes to Catholic Charities, he said. About $1 million is shared with parishes that meet or exceed fundraising goals. The statement can be found in its entirety here. "It’s painful to hear some people talking about stopping their contributions to the annual appeal and to the church in general," Goodness wrote. "By withdrawing their support, who are they harming? The very people that we as a church are pledged to help." Prepared to protest Mary Gannon has empathy for those people. She gives to soup kitchens, to the Sisters of Charity and to Saint Vincent Academy, an all-girls high school in Newark. She volunteers her time to a variety of organizations. But she says she won’t donate to the Archdiocese of Newark. "It’s like the archbishop is out of it," said Gannon, 68, of Florham Park. "He doesn’t understand how this looks or what the pope is trying to tell his priests. He just seems not to care." Gannon said she hasn’t been this angry at the archdiocese since she was a recent high school graduate. Then, she and her friends protested outside Llewellyn Park, the affluent gated community in West Orange, when she learned Archbishop Thomas Boland lived in a mansion there. Today, Gannon says, she is prepared to protest again. "Somehow the message has to be delivered," she said. "People can let him know by demonstrating or by withholding money from the appeal. Complacency is terrible. We have to take a stand." A call for action "Judge the action taken, not the man." Kevin Davitt says his pastor, the Rev. Thomas Wisniewski, spoke those words during Mass last week at St. Catharine’s Church in Glen Rock. Wisniewski knew some members of the parish were deeply troubled by the construction on Myers’ country home, Davitt said, and tried to address it head on. But to Davitt’s thinking, the man and the action are one in the same. Davitt, 59, refused to put his money in the collection basket, as did others in church that day, he said. And while he had already donated to the archbishop’s annual appeal — he says it was a "significant sum" — Davitt won’t do so again unless Myers reimburses the archdiocese or fully funds the construction with private donations. "This just adds insult to injury," said Davitt, who worked as a spokesman for former Gov. James E. McGreevey from 2001 to 2003 and who now works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. "We’re all still grappling with the problems of pedophilia and sexual inappropriateness of our priests, and then to have this come out of the blue is very discouraging to me as a Catholic." Pope Francis, he said, has been a "breath of fresh air" for the church, inspiring people and speaking out against self-promotion and grandiosity. In the face of that message, Davitt called the addition to Myers’ retirement home "mind-blowing." Last week, Davitt expressed his frustration in an email to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. Dozens of other parishioners told The Star-Ledger they had likewise written to the ambassador, known as the nuncio, or to Pope Francis at the Vatican. "I am hopeful you might be able to communicate to our Holy Father the need to remove the archbishop from his position in Newark," Davitt wrote. 'This affects us all' Tom Reeder grew up in a conservative Catholic home. Priests were regulars at dinner. Financial support to the church has been a way of life. He typically drops $40 in the collection plate at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Pittstown, in the Diocese of Metuchen. Last Sunday, he contributed $5. Today, he might not contribute at all. "I know I’m not in the Archdiocese of Newark, but this affects us all," said Reeder, who lives in Union Township, Hunterdon County, just a few miles from Myers’ retreat. "There are a lot of hard-working people out there who give, and here you have this display of arrogance. It’s appalling." Reeder, 48, counts himself among those hard workers. He built a sheet-metal manufacturing and installation business out of nothing. Last week, as he worked on the roof of a Jersey City building, he said he loves the church and hopes people continue to attend Mass. At the same time, he said, "I’m not an apologist or enabler." "This shows the need for reform," Reeder said. "And the only way they will listen to us is if we hit them in the wallet. Hard."