Atlanta archbishop: I 'overlooked the pastoral implications' of new $2.2 million home

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Apologetic for failing to consider the pastoral implications of the construction of a $2.2 million residence, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory is re-evaluating his recent move.

In a column Monday for the archdiocesan newspaper the Georgia Bulletin, he said he failed to consider the impression the new home sent to area Catholics who give to the church while struggling to pay their own bills and the example he set for what it means to follow Jesus' example. As a result, he said he will meet with his various councils for guidance; if they advise him to sell the home, he will seek a new residence elsewhere.

"As the Shepherd of this local Church, a responsibility I hold more dear than any other, certainly more than any configuration of brick and mortar, I am disappointed that, while my advisors and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia," Gregory wrote.

"To all of you, I apologize sincerely and from my heart," he said.

The archbishop said he received many "passionate indictments" of him in the past week, with people writing and calling to express their frustration with his recent move from his current residence to a newly built 6,196-square-foot mansion. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, funding for the home came from Joseph Mitchell, a parishioner and the nephew of Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, who left the archdiocese $15 million in his will, including the property where the new archbishop's residence was constructed.

"We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for. How can we instill this in our children when they see their archdiocesan leadership living extravagantly?" wrote a parishioner the archbishop quoted at the beginning of his column.

According to Gregory, the situation in Atlanta emerged after the rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King -- one of the archdiocese's largest and fastest growing parishes -- asked to purchase the nearby archbishop's house to re-purpose it as a new rectory, and raze the old building for further expansion of the parish. The Journal-Constitution reported that those editions will also cost $2.2 million.

When the bequeathed property appeared, it was determined they would use it to build a new archbishop's residence, with similar living quarters and floor plan as the previous home.

"That's when, to say the least, I took my eye off the ball," Gregory said.

What went unconsidered, "and that oversight rests with me and me alone," he said, "was that the world and the Church have changed." Even before Pope Francis, he said bishops have heard a call for them "to live more simply, more humbly, and more like Jesus Christ who challenges us to be in the world and not of the world."

He continued: "When I thought this was simply a matter of picking up and moving from one house to a comparable one two miles away, we covered every angle from the fiscal and logistical perspectives, but I overlooked the pastoral implications. I fear that when I should have been consulting, I was really only reporting, and that is my failure."

"I promise you that my service to you is the reason I get up each day -- not the house in which I live or the zip code to which my mail is sent. I would never jeopardize the cherished and personal relationships I have built with so many of you over something that personally means so little after all," Gregory concluded. 

The outcry against clerical excess in Atlanta came around the same time that New Jersey Catholics criticized a $500,000 3,000-square-foot renovation of a summer home for Newark Archbishop John Myers, preparing the already 4,500-square-foot house for his eventual retirement.

Myers has yet to publicly respond to his critics; however, Coadjutor Archbishop Bernard Hebda came to his defense in an op-ed piece for the North Jersey Record, saying Myers has saved the archdiocesan finances by choosing to live in the cathedral rectory during his 13 years in Newark.

"I admire his willingness to forego personal privacy in order to live in community with four or five other priests and I am inspired by his commitment to live in the intensely urban setting of inner-city Newark," Hebda wrote.

Outside the U.S., Pope Francis accepted March 26 the resignation of German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, better known as the "bishop of bling." Tebartz-van Elst drew scrutiny of his own for renovation and building projects in his Limburg diocese estimated at $40 million. 

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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