Editorial: N.J. archbishop's retirement home an assault on parishioners' goodwill

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers' decision to expand his summer residence cum retirement home -- already a model of luxury with five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, an elevator, a three-car garage and a large outdoor pool and valued at nearly $800,000 -- is nothing short of an assault on the goodwill and trust of the people of God.

The 3,000-square-foot addition, at a minimum cost of $500,000 (it is reported that furnishings, architectural costs and landscaping are not included in that figure), will bring the total area of the residence to 7,400 square feet and the total value to at least $1.3 million.

The addition will house an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library, another elevator and a "gallery" to provide a panoramic view of the grounds below, according to a report in The Star-Ledger of Newark.

Gasp. Yes, a gasp is appropriate. The arrogance and self-importance required to undertake such a project on one's own behalf and funded, at least partially, with the proceeds from the sale of other archdiocesan-owned property is breathtaking.

To be clear, we understand that Myers is a diocesan priest and, thus, took no vow of poverty. We certainly don't want to see bishops who have dedicated a life of service to the church living in squalor. They deserve a measure of comfort and security, and the community would certainly want to provide those measures. But the acquisitive tendencies of some members of our hierarchy, Myers among them, would cause a Neiman Marcus buyer to blush.

Myers is just the latest, and most ostentatious, example of episcopal overindulgence. A few hours to the south in the Camden, N.J., diocese, recently installed Bishop Dennis Sullivan purchased a 7,000-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms and six bathrooms for $500,000. The home had previously undergone $700,000 in renovations and includes an in-ground pool, three fireplaces, a library and a three-car garage.

This matter of episcopal residences and what might be proper admittedly can get complicated.

Bishop David O'Connell moved out of the traditional bishop's residence in downtown Trenton, N.J., and purchased a more modest abode, but he upset Catholics who felt that moving represented abandonment of a troubled city that had experienced the loss of Catholic schools and parishes.

In the Denver archdiocese, construction began last month on a $6.5 million Holy Trinity Center, which will include a new bishop's residence but also communal living and large-scale meeting rooms and space for public functions. The new construction is part of a larger plan to relieve pressure on space at a seminary complex where the bishop currently resides.

And it is worth noting that in addition to the financial crunch created by the sex abuse crisis in Philadelphia and Boston, the personal preferences of prelates in both cities were behind the sales of iconic, baronial residences. Other bishops as well over the years have downsized, moving to humbler dwellings.

Nothing is complicated about the Newark case. This is clearly the material of episcopal scandal, hedonism undisguised, a level of clerical privilege that knows no bounds.

What can the example possibly suggest about the church to the residents of Newark, where 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty level? How does one, in that context, explain the Lazarus story? The rich young man? The beatitudes? What does one say in the face of Pope Francis' call for a humbler church, for bishops who walk with their people, with his urging a poor church for the poor? Myers swims in his endless pool while the city of Newark drowns in poverty.

Myers may present an excessive case of the priesthood of unaccountable privilege, but the case is not, though extreme, irrelevant. It is valuable in shedding light on the kind of accepted corruption that has infected the church for decades, manifest in the seemingly endless abuse and financial scandals, and that has drained the church of so much of its moral authority and credibility.

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 28-March 13, 2014 print issue under the headline: Looking down from his mansion in the sky.

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