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Living Large: The Scandal of Bishops’ Residences

AP-Photo/David-Goldman
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Some have already anticipated Pope Francis's move toward simpler lifestyle.

Camden, N.J., is one of the poorest cities in the United States. The city’s median household income is $25,681, half of the overall US figure. The unemployment rate is twice the national average and 40% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Camden is so broke that two years ago it laid off its entire police force and reformed under a county policing arrangement.

Given these desparate realities, it was a shock earlier this year when reports surfaced that Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the new leader of the Diocese of Camden, had spent half a million dollars to purchase a 20-room mansion in the leafy suburb of Woodbury. The Camden Diocese, which covers the six counties that make up the lower third of the state of New Jersey, has in recent years closed 40% of its parishes and numerous schools in an effort to save money.

Criticism of the purchase was immediate, widespread, and fierce. One Catholic resident, Chalky Ottinger, wrote a letter to a local newspaper that summed up the reaction of many. “We need a lot of things in the diocese,” she wrote. “We need money to finance schools, finances to resolve our debt and funds to help the poor. What we do not need is another home or mansion, especially one that costs $500,000 just so the bishop can live in luxury.” For its part, the Diocese insisted that the purchase was a legitimate investment – and it may have been – but that didn’t quiet the controversy.

Camden’s Bishop Sullivan isn’t alone. In late March, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta apologized for building and moving into a $2.2 million mansion on a piece of donated land in the tony Buckhead section of town. “I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services,” wrote Archbishop Gregory, who has moved out and put the house on the market.

In February, it was revealed that Newark Archbishop John Myers was spending half a million dollars on a three-story, 3000-foot addition to his $800,000, five-bedroom weekend residence in Franklin Township. Archbishop Myers plans to retire to the addition when he hands over the leadership of Newark to his successor in two years. The addition features a hot tub, an indoor exercise pool, and other amenities. As in other places, Newark has closed parishes, schools and ministries to the poor in recent years, yet Archbishop Myers hasn’t responded directly to the seeming disconnect.

Just last month, Daniel Burke, editor of CNN’s ‘Belief Blog,’ published an article that looked at the homes of ten American archbishops.  Some of Burke’s findings are disturbing: The six-bedroom, bayside home in which Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami lives with one other priest, his secretary. The $1.4 million, 11,000 square-foot “palace” that is home for St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and his priest-secretary. And the $30 million, 15,000 square-foot Vanderbilt manse on Madison Avenue that Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York shares with three other priests.

Burke goes on to note, properly, that not all American prelates live so well. Nine days after taking over as Archbishop of Boston, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., announced that he would move from the Italianate mansion his predecessor occupied into a rectory apartment next to a housing project in Boston’s South End. “As a Franciscan brother,” said Cardinal O’Malley at the time, “I prefer to have the simplest quarters.”

Another Capuchin friar, Archbishop Charles Chaput, put the $10 million residence he inherited up for sale and

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