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Steubenville priests: Diocese needs change, not merger

Bishop Jeff Monforton says a plan to merge the Diocese of Steubenville into its larger neighbor could become a template for the merger of other small, struggling U.S. dioceses.

But more than a dozen priests of the diocese have signed a letter asking Ohio’s bishops to reconsider their support for a plan to merge Steubenville with the Diocese of Columbus. The priests say that Steubenville’s problems are overstated, and won’t be solved by a merger.  

The interior of Steubenville’s Holy Name Cathedral, which was closed in 2014 for renovations, and has not subsequently reopened.

Steubenville priests and a former diocesan employee told The Pillar that the Ohio diocese has been badly mismanaged by Monforton, and needs concrete changes and new leadership, not a merger.

The Pillar has learned that Monforton is facing a Vatican-ordered investigation into his handling of sexual abuse allegations, while some clerics have said the bishop’s management of serious financial and personnel issues should raise questions about his support for a merger.

Among other issues raised, Monforton applied for a $50,000 grant to study fundraising prospects for a cathedral renovation and other diocesan projects, even after plans for the extinctive merger of the diocese were underway.

For his part, Monforton told The Pillar he understands concerns about the prospective merger, and that he is praying for the best outcome for his people.

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton. Credit: Diocese of Steubenville.

‘How sustainable is this diocese?’

Monforton announced to priests and staffers at an Oct. 10 meeting a plan to merge the eastern Ohio Steubenville diocese with the much larger Diocese of Columbus. Speaking for nearly an hour, the bishop outlined for priests a shrinking Catholic population, now around 29,000 Catholics, an aging presbyterate, and the economic prospects for an Appalachian region mired in unemployment and poverty.

While he recognized that the Steubenville diocese has one of the highest Mass attendance rates in the U.S, the bishop told priests that he was concerned about the future of the diocese.

“Right now, we are solvent, thank the Lord,” Monforton explained at the Oct. 10 meeting.

But “our ability to evangelize has been compromised, and that will continue. The diocese is victim to the Ohio Valley’s aging cycle and steady demographic depopulation,” he said.

“The question is, how sustainable is this diocese in the next five to 10 years?” Monforton asked, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The Pillar.

Evoking the Biblical image of Israelite slaves making bricks in Egypt, the bishop told his priests that “we’re living Exodus 5, and Pharaoh is the economy and the lack of job creation. We have to make the same amount of bricks, with very little straw provided.”

Monforton told the priests that he had consulted with the apostolic nuncio and the bishops of Ohio, all of whom had supported a plan to merge the 78-year-old see with the Columbus diocese, from which it was carved in 1944.

In an Oct. 11 interview, Monforton told The Pillar that he began speaking with apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre and the Vatican Congregation for Bishops about the prospect of merging the Steubenville diocese more than 18 months ago. The bishop subsequently confirmed that the bishops of Ohio voted approvingly of the plan - in a consultative vote required by the Vatican - in September 2021.

Monforton said the decision was a matter of economics and personnel.

The bishop said that pastoral demands on his aging presbyterate had caused him to begin a process of consulting with a small group of trusted friends.

“I talked with my vicar general and just some advisors - local entrepreneurs and business people - about what we saw in the diocese 10 years from now, and that’s what’s governed my decision. Right now we can still rub two nickels together, but barely. Ten years from now, it’ll be a totally different story.”

“I have a few friends here in Steubenville that are entrepreneurs. And they’re the ones who really shed light on our employment situation here. And, you know, we can either sugarcoat, or, you know, do people want the truth? So they were very instrumental [in the decision],” Monforton added.

“Of course, it’s very painful for everybody. I mean, obviously, this was not an arbitrary decision.”

‘A template’

Monforton told The Pillar that he hopes his approach to spearheading a merger of the diocese will be of aid to other U.S. dioceses facing dismal future numbers.

“What I’m trying to do is create a template. Because I don’t think we’re gonna be the last one. And if that can assist other dioceses in their processes, that will hopefully be of help,” the bishop said.

But while Monforton said that Steubenville’s priests are his “heroes,” he told The Pillar that he had not consulted the diocesan presbyteral council or college of consultors - a senior priest advisory group - before announcing plans for the merger.

In fact, the bishop told The Pillar, he had not spoken directly with his priests about the prospect at all before the Oct. 10 announcement.

At his meeting with clergy and staff, Monforton was asked about whether he had consulted with any group of priests while deciding to push for a closure of the diocese.

“The consultation has been occurring over the past few years,” Monforton told his priests.

“I just have not brought things up by saying ‘This is regarding a possible merger.’”

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But several priests in the diocese told The Pillar that if their bishop intends to make his process a “template” for other prospective diocesan mergers, he should have included a period of ongoing consultation with the priests and laity of the diocese before reaching a decision.

“That’s obviously not a consultation,” one Steubenville priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Pillar.

“That’s someone already having his mind made up. And we don’t even have the information available to us that the bishop says makes such a difference. When we look at the numbers, and what we would have told him, is that it does not seem to us that this is necessary, or going to solve any problems.”

Another priest said that Monforton’s indirect form of consultation, on a major diocesan issue, should not be sufficient before a final decision.

“That kind of ‘consultation’ certainly wouldn’t suffice for the closure of a parish,” the priest said. “So why should he say it’s enough here? Why wouldn’t he ask us? Or the people? Isn’t that synodality?”

Monforton told The Pillar that he is getting “mixed reviews” from Steubenville’s presbyterate about merger plans, with older priests generally supportive of the plan, and younger ones more opposed. But the bishop said he aims to help his priests with the “painful process” of a prospective merger.

“We’re all gonna react in different ways. And my responsibility is to be the shepherd, and a brother at the end of the day,” the bishop said.

But while the bishop said he’s working with his priests, a number of Steubenville priests have brought their concerns elsewhere.

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‘The local Church is alive’

Fourteen active priests - out of 36 in the diocese - signed an Oct. 18 letter to the five other diocesan bishops of Ohio, asking them to stop the merger process. Two retired priests and two permanent deacons also signed the letter.

The signatories argued that the Diocese of Steubenville has significantly more priests per capita than any other diocese in Ohio — there are 372 Catholics per priest in the diocese, the letter claimed, while there are more than 1,000 Catholics per priest in each of Ohio’s other dioceses.

The clerics added that the Diocese of Steubenville has a higher share of Catholics attending Mass than other Ohio dioceses, had more participation in the global synod on synodality, and had both a stable population and continued prospects for priestly vocations.

The letter addressed a 24% decline in the Catholic population of the diocese in the last two decades.

“An important consideration regarding the change in Catholic population is that of the 24 percent decline over 20 years, a full 50 percent of that decline occurred between the years of 2017 and 2020, years in which our diocese was shaken to its core by financial and sexual abuse scandals. Despite these scandals that so broke the hearts and shook the faith of both us and our people, the Diocese of Steubenville has a Mass attendance rate of over 50 percent, certainly one of the highest in the country.”  

“What an incredible witness to Christ and His Real Presence in the Eucharist that fact is!” the clerics wrote.

“This local Church is alive! She is not dying.”

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“With respect to the financial situation in the diocese, we maintain there is stability in that realm, as well,” they added, despite a recent embezzlement scandal that cost the diocese millions in back taxes.

“Specifically regarding the diocese itself, between 2017 and 2020 (those same years that saw a significant change in population), the Diocese of Steubenville experienced a net growth in assets of some $3.9 million,” the letter added.

The letter argued that the diocese “is ripe for the harvest” of evangelization.

“A very sad statistic is that the Catholic percentage of the population has declined from 12.4 percent in 1950 to 6.1 percent in 2020. That is our fault because we have failed at evangelizing 94 percent of the people who live in this territory. That is a shameful number. However, it is a number that can be and, by the divine commission given to the Church by Our Lord, must be changed! This is mission territory that cries out for the spreading of the Catholic Faith. In one sense, we as missionary disciples of Christ could be in no better place!” the clerics argued.

The signatories said that in their view, “there are concrete actions that can be taken that will allow the Diocese of Steubenville to stabilize and continue the mission.”

They called for “complete, authentic transparency with regard to the diocese’s financial status,” “serious, attentive pastoral planning that will allow the numbers of parishes and priests to be stable and serve the needs of the people,” and “continued costs cutting and improving effectiveness at the chancery level.”

“We are small, we are poor, we are the lowest paid clergy in the state. But we are here. This presence of the Church in one of the poorest, most unevangelized areas of the United States is of critical importance and tremendous beauty and value. We are the periphery of which Pope Francis so beautifully speaks!” the signatories wrote.

“With the Holy Father, we clergy ‘wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor!’ Most importantly, we are blessed to already live in that reality for which Pope Francis longs for the universal Church,” they added.  

“With specific actions and changes in diocesan governance and administration, with the work and help of our people, with God’s continued blessings, and, ultimately, with your allowance, we can keep this local Church alive and we can produce great fruit for the Kingdom of God in the years to come. We beg Your Excellencies, please allow us to do it.”

Priests who signed the letter told The Pillar that they hope to meet with Ohio bishops directly, to urge a new plan for the Diocese of Steubenville, and to present to the bishops their sense of the diocesan’s fiscal health.

“We’re not sure what the bishop told them, but we want to give them all the accurate information, and we want to save the diocese,” one priest said. “We’re fighting for the diocese, and since our bishop isn’t fighting with us, we need other bishops to help us.”

“This is Appalachia. This is the periphery,” another said. “We’re poor, but the people are generous. What this diocese needs is a few years of really dynamic leadership — of a bishop who wants to see this local Church thrive, and preserve our culture, and we could be really on fire.”

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‘A decision I made’

While Steubenville’s priests urge bishops to reconsider a plan for a merger, several told The Pillar that other issues in the diocese raise questions about Monforton's judgment of diocesan needs.

In October 2021, the month after Ohio’s bishops voted approvingly of a merger plan, the Steubenville diocese applied for a $50,000 grant from Catholic Extension to pay consultants for an “an assessment of both the renovation of the existing Holy Name Cathedral as well as the infrastructure and diocesan support for the parishes.”

A plan to renovate Steubenville’s cathedral was first announced in 2014, after an earlier plan to build a new cathedral was scrapped by Monforton’s predecessor in 2011.

Holy Name Cathedral was closed in 2014 for renovations, and in 2017 the diocese said that interior renovations would soon be underway.

The diocese worked with city officials to create “Cathedral Square,” a plaza outside the church that Monforton said would be a place for locals to gather. The plaza would also help to make the cathedral’s neighborhood safer, the bishop told local media.

But construction stopped in 2018, amid an investigation into embezzlement by two diocesan officials.

Priests in the diocese said they were confused about the construction of an outside space before renovation of the actual church, but said that Monforton believed the plaza would inspire giving from local Catholics.  

Monforton told The Pillar that the “Cathedral Square” project cost the diocese more than $1 million in unrestricted funds. But the bishop said that when he initiated the project, “the financial picture that was given to me was inaccurate.”

“And it is tough. I mean, we can look back and ask ‘what if?’ And it’s tough when you’re a smaller diocese, a lot of this stuff is even more magnified for the people, and that’s hard.”

A new temporary roof was put on the cathedral in 2019 after leaks damaged the interior. In May 2022, Monforton announced that plans to renovate the cathedral had been scrapped, for lack of funds, especially as the building had become onerously expensive to repair.

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The October 2021 grant application, filed the month after Ohio’s bishops voted on an extinctive merger, said the diocese was “moving forward” with plans to raise money for its cathedral and other diocesan projects, and needed consultants to help assess the project.

Monforton’s letter to Catholic Extension explained that a $50,000 grant “would be applied toward the Planning and Feasibility Study for the future Development Initiative for Holy Name Cathedral and the Diocese of Steubenville.”

The grant request was approved, and at least some funds have been dispersed to the Steubenville diocese. Neither the bishop’s letter nor the grant application mentioned that the diocese was in the process of a merger.

For his part, Monforton said that the grant request was “a decision I made, and I informed the Holy See.”

And “there was no objection raised,” the bishop said.

“It was like no response whatsoever. So it wasn’t yes or no, it was just that I decided to move forward on it, and I gave my reasons, which were that we still had to get work done here. I didn’t know if this [merger process] was going to take five years.”

Monforton said that while the Ohio bishops had approved the prospect of a merger when he made the grant request, he had hoped at the time that diocese might still prove viable.

“It was my hope that we were going to get through this, and that it would be a nightmare that would be over with … and that we would get word from the Holy See that [we should] give it a shot.”

The bishop added that he believed considering the prospect of a capital campaign was important, because “we had to look at [needs in] the entire diocese.”

The results of the feasibility study, Monforton said, have not yet been returned to the diocese.

Fiscal anomalies

The prospective merger is the latest in a series of difficulties the diocese has faced in recent years.

In July 2020, former diocesan comptroller David Franklin pled guilty in federal court to charges that he had embezzled almost $300,000 from the diocese, and that he had failed to turn over to the IRS nearly $2.8 million payroll taxes withheld by the diocese from employees. Franklin’s financial crimes cost the diocese more than $900,000 in interest and penalties, in addition to its $2.8 million debt to the IRS.

In August 2020, Monsignor Kurt Kemo admitted that while he served as diocesan vicar general, he had stolen more than $300,000 from the diocese, in order to pay for flying lessons, purchase expensive clothing, and otherwise subsidize his lifestyle. The priest was sentenced to six months in an Ohio penitentiary.

The guilty pleas came after an investigation involving local law enforcement, the IRS, the federal Department of Justice, and the Ohio attorney general’s office.

Monforton told The Pillar that the financial penalties were waived by federal authorities, and that the diocese has repaid its debt to the federal government.

A former diocesan employee alleges that Monforton resisted investigating the extent of criminal misconduct in the diocese, and pushed back on her calls to contact law enforcement authorities.

The former employee, who is also a former religious sister in the Steubenville diocese, told The Pillar that Monforton was aware for months of serious financial irregularities before authorities were contacted, and said the bishop declined to contact law enforcement or conduct a serious investigation.

In March 2017 an accounting firm contracted to audit the diocese warned by letter that payroll taxes had not been sent to state and federal authorities in 2016.

Monforton “could have alerted authorities then. He could have alerted the IRS then, but he didn’t,” said the former employee, who requested anonymity because of her current position in a related field.

Months after the warning letter, Franklin retired from the diocese, and diocesan officials seemed to make some efforts to rectify accounts. But the former employee said she continued to observe serious anomalies in diocesan fiscal records, and pushed for a broad investigation of financial malfeasance.

Monforton resisted, she alleged.

“And eventually, I sat in his office in October 2017, and said ‘There’s criminal activity here. We really have to do something.’ And he said, ‘Sister, that’s all in the past.’ And I said, ‘Bishop, it was two weeks ago.’”

Monforton told The Pillar that conversation did not happen, and that he began leading an internal investigation into diocesan finances as soon as he became aware of irregularities.

While the former employee said she began contacting local prosecutors in November 2017, Monforton said that he was the first to contact authorities about the prospect of fraud in the diocese.

But the bishop conceded that he did not contact law enforcement officials until the early part of 2018, nearly 10 months after the auditors flagged a “significant deficiency” in diocesan finances, and the prospect of widespread unpaid tax liability.

“He didn’t do anything until he was backed into a corner,” the former employee alleged.

But Monforton offered a different account.

“I was the one who contacted law enforcement, and we did an internal investigation first to see what we were looking at,” Monforton told The Pillar.

“And when I discovered that we had not paid the previous year’s taxes, I said we needed to pay that right now. And I had my director of finance take a look, and that’s when the fraud was discovered.”

The bishop did not address directly the length of time between the March 2017 accountants' letter and his contact with law enforcement officials in early 2018.

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Vos estis

In addition to financial questions, Vatican and U.S. Church officials confirmed to The Pillar that Monforton is facing a Vatican-ordered Vos estis lux mundi investigation, reportedly into allegations that the bishop did not properly handle charges of sexual misconduct on the part of at least one Steubenville priest.

Priests of the diocese say that investigation raises questions about their bishop’s credibility, and about the veracity of the information he’s provided on the diocesan merger.

A spokesperson for Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, the metropolitan bishop who would be responsible for investigating Monforton, told The Pillar that the archbishop would not comment “on the matter of an open Vos estis lux mundi investigation.”

But the spokesperson said that a Vos estis investigation into Monforton and the question of a diocesan merger are “unrelated issues,” and an investigation would not impact deliberation concerning the prospect of an extinctive merger.

For his part, Monforton told The Pillar Oct. 18 that “a Vos estis investigation would not impact something like this.”

“But when it comes to the process itself, I am the senior suffragan. So whether I’m investigating Archbishop Schnurr or he’s investigating me, that’s not to be discussed or shared.”

“But that is basically between the investigator and the Holy See,” the bishop added. “If I’m being investigated, I would not be able to say anything.”

In July, the Steubenville diocese settled a lawsuit with a woman who in 2018, when she was 17, become pregnant after sexual intercourse with Henry Foxhoven, then a Steubenville priest in his 40s. The lawsuit alleged that the woman was groomed as a teenager by the priest, and that Monforton had received several reports about Foxhoven's inappropriate conduct.

Foxhoven was reportedly suspended for one week in 2017, after reports of inappropriate behavior with a teenage girl at a wedding reception, and directed to get counseling.

It is not clear whether the Vos estis investigation pertains to Monforton’s handling of allegations against Foxhoven, who is now in prison for sexual battery, or to some other situation in the diocese.

‘We are the periphery’

Monforton told The Pillar that the next step in the merger process is a consultative vote on the issue during the closed session of next month’s meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The bishop told The Pillar that he expects during that meeting to share the results of a survey for lay Catholics in the diocese, which was published this week.

Monforton told The Pillar that he is uncertain what the USCCB will do, or what the Holy See will decide on the matter. But in his Oct. 10 meeting with priests, Monforton said he believed the merger is “a reality.”

“How the merger’s going to occur,” Monforton told his priests, “of course, that’s the pope’s call.”

In response to other questions at the meeting about the future of Steubenville’s parishes, Monforton told priests those issues would be up to the Bishop of Columbus.

Montforton told The Pillar that he understands that “the people and our priests are hurting,” adding that he knew some priests were calling for “a new sheriff in town.”

“As you can imagine, we are in some intense times right now, and the threshold to handle pain is probably a lot less for people right now, and tempers can flare more quickly.”

“My role — as St. Augustine says, ‘For you I am a shepherd, and with you I am a Christian.’ I am called to be the protagonist in this story, and to do the best we can to serve the Lord. … And it’s my prayer that this does not in any way impede our ability to share that the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

“These are good guys,” Monforton said of his priests. “And I put myself in their position, and I can see how there would be fear as well as uncertainty.”

It is not clear whether Ohio’s bishops have responded to the letter from Steubenville clerics urging them to reconsider their support for the merger.

But for their part, many of Steubenville’s priests say they know their diocese does not need to be suppressed. Several said they hope that bishops will look carefully at the situation — and call for an outside assessment of diocesan finances and personnel.

“Getting rid of a local Church is a really serious thing to do. I don’t think it should be approached lightly, and without consulting the priests,” one Steubenville priest told The Pillar.

“I hope the USCCB would ask to hear from the priests and the people in the diocese. We thought those things were expected now, to listen before deciding. And we in Steubenville, we are the periphery. So I hope they’ll ask us more than we’ve been asked so far.”

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