While Pope Francis has urged diocesan bishops to take more seriously the canonical discipline of clerics, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. bishops’ canonical affairs committee has not taken steps to address canonically reports of public cohabitation by a senior-ranking official in his archdiocese.
A spokesperson for Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee told The Pillar that the archdiocese has “spoken with” judicial vicar Fr. Mark Payne, who hired as a parish schoolteacher last year a layperson with whom he had maintained a public romantic relationship, and with whom he has shared a condo for decades.
While Payne’s move has caused concern among some Wisconsin Catholics, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee told The Pillar it has given the priest verbal warnings about his “lifestyle,” but has indicated that it does not plan to initiate canonical investigations into the priest’s conduct, or to use other canonical mechanisms to address the concerns.
The handling of the case could point to problems flagged by Pope Francis regarding the use of canon law to address moral issues in local dioceses.
Milwaukee priest Fr. Mark Payne was in June 2022 appointed judicial vicar — a senior-ranking leadership position in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee — and the pastor of two parishes north of the city: St. Monica in Whitefish Bay, and St. Eugene in Fox Point.
In October, Payne announced to families at St. Monica’s School that he had hired as a middle school theology teacher a man who “comes to us with a degree in theology, high school teaching experience, and was in formation to join the Jesuit order.”
The priest did not mention that he and the man had owned a condo together since 2003, or that the man had for years depicted them as a romantic couple in publicly accessible social media postings reviewed by The Pillar: recounting their vacations together — including one with “another couple” — their commemoration of holidays, their efforts to redecorate their condo, and posting photos of the pair at Pride events and gay bars and clubs, both in Milwaukee and in other parts of the world.
Priests of the archdiocese have told The Pillar they were aware that Payne had long shared his residence with a layman, to whom they had not been introduced. Others in the archdiocese have told The Pillar that the social media posts were known among some Catholics, who had concerns about how Payne was depicted in them.
At St. Monica’s, the man’s presence at the school raised questions among some parishioners, especially after he was reportedly introduced after a Christmas Mass, ambiguously, as Payne’s “good friend.”
But in April 2023, Payne announced that the individual was “resigning from his teaching position … in order to dedicate more time to caring for his family.”
Sources told The Pillar that in August, the archdiocesan vicar for clergy’s office received information about the social media postings, which depicted a years-long romantic relationship, seemingly at odds with Payne’s clerical obligations.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee confirmed to The Pillar that earlier this year “an anonymous person provided information to the Vicar for Clergy regarding Fr. Mark Payne and we have followed up on that information.”
While the parish hiring announcement did not call his position temporary, the archdiocese said that the man “was employed in a temporary role at St. Monica Parish School and is no longer employed there. We have spoken with Fr. Payne about using appropriate judgment in hiring decisions.”
The archdiocese did not mention its “Code of Ethical Standards for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” which the individual’s hiring would seem to overstep.
The code establishes as a possible conflict of interest for Church leaders “employing … friends or relatives.”
“Church ministers must avoid conflicts of interest, since the existence, or even the appearance, of a conflict of interest can call into question the leader’s integrity, and harm the organization’s reputation,” the code explains.
While the code adds that “disclosure of all relevant factors can, in some circumstances, mitigate the potential for a conflict of interest,” Payne made no such disclosure at St. Monica’s school.
On the question of Payne’s public cohabitation, the archdiocese said it had “spoken with” the priest, but has apparently not initiated relevant canonical processes or mechanisms.
Canon law establishes that “a cleric who persists with scandal in an external sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is to be punished with a suspension.”
But the archdiocese would not say whether it has initiated a formal “preliminary investigation” into the extent of Payne’s public relationship, as canon law requires when dioceses are presented with the credible possibility of canonical crimes.
Instead, the archdiocese said that “we have … spoken with Fr. Payne about the necessity for clergy to live a lifestyle that avoids scandal and is faithful to their promises of ordination. He has given assurances that he is faithful to his priestly vows and we have given him the opportunity to correct any perception that his lifestyle is inconsistent with the life of a priest.”
While canon law emphasizes the presumption of innocence, the Church’s law also cautions against even the appearance of impropriety in the personal lives of clerics, requiring that “clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can … give rise to scandal among the faithful.”
“Clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state,” the law adds, in order to avoid giving scandal by the appearance of misconduct.
When the prospect of such scandal exists — even if the priest has not violated his obligations to continence — bishops are enjoined to make efforts to correct the situation, making use of canonical precepts as needed, to require that clerics modify their behavior to avoid giving scandal.
Despite encouragement from Pope Francis to that effect, it is not clear how often bishops make use of those precepts.
Earlier this week, The Pillar reported on a Massachusetts priest who reportedly lived for ten years with a woman, rather than in the rectory to which he was assigned, with no intervention from his diocese until the priest was eventually accused of stealing.
The matter of scandal could be of particular importance for a priest holding a ranking ecclesiastical office in his diocese, like that of judicial vicar, who is responsible for overseeing the archdiocesan court, called a tribunal, and generally responsible for advising the archbishop on canonical issues.
Canon law stipulates that the judicial vicar, in addition to possessing a canonical degree, must maintain “unimpaired reputation,” in order to ensure that the legal decisions he oversees are not called into question. The law is clear that a clerical reputation — and thus confidence in his ecclesiastical ministry — can be harmed even by the public appearance of misconduct, and clerics are directed to avoid all situations in which scandal might be manifest.
Because of the importance of the position, the judicial vicar is one of only two senior diocesan officials to keep his position during a diocesan vacancy, when a bishop has died or retired.
But in Milwaukee, the archdiocese declined to indicate if Listecki has weighed in authoritatively on the issues raised to it.
Asked whether Payne continues to reside in the condo he shares with the man, while occupying a prominent and high-ranking position in the archdiocese, a spokesperson told The Pillar that “our discussions with Father Payne about having the opportunity to make any needed changes include all aspects of his life.”
“The broad context in the archdiocese is that many years ago our priests were allowed to move out of rectories and purchase private residences. Many parishes no longer have rectories as a result,” the spokesperson explained.
The Pillar has confirmed that both St. Monica’s and St. Eugene’s, the parishes at which Payne is pastor, have rectories available for the priests assigned to them.
The archdiocesan approach to the case would seem to point to an issue flagged by Pope Francis in 2021, when the pope promulgated new universal disciplinary norms for the Church.
The pontiff said that diocesan bishops had been too reluctant to use disciplinary measures to address potential moral failings and the prospect of scandal — and that their reluctance had compounded both sin and dysfunction in the Church.
“In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions. This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies,” the pope wrote in Pascite gregem Dei.
“This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful. For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties. Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully,” the pope wrote.
“Charity thus demands that the Church’s pastors resort to the penal system whenever it is required, keeping in mind the three aims that make it necessary in the ecclesial community: the restoration of the demands of justice, the correction of the guilty party and the repair of scandals,” Pope Francis added.
“As I observed recently, canonical sanctions also have a reparative and salvific end, and are primarily directed to the good of the faithful.”
In light of those reflections, the Vatican has urged diocesan bishops in recent years to more frequently use canonical mechanisms to address both scandal and alleged violations of the law, pushing back on a tendency in many dioceses to treat misconduct principally through a psychological lens, or to ignore the expectation of prosecution for any but the most grave crimes.
During Archbishop Listecki’s term as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on canonical affairs, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, was invited to address the bishops on legal reforms by Francis to the Church’s penal code.
Scicluna specifically warned the bishops to take seriously and treat formally alleged acts of clerical sexual misconduct, or situations which give the appearance of impropriety, which had often been considered moral failures, but not canonical delicts.
In addition to his work as an archdiocesan official, Payne has a national ministry as chaplain of “Heart of the Nation,” a Wisconsin nonprofit which provides televised Masses aired across the country on local television stations and cable channels, along with YouTube videos in which Payne leads the rosary.
Payne has not responded to questions from The Pillar.