Catholic Megadevelopment VERITATIS SPLENDOR is long on rhetoric, short on details

Bishop Joseph Strickland, the outspoken shepherd of the diocese of Tyler, Texas, is promoting a gargantuan new planned Catholic community called Veritatis Splendor. The proposed compound will cover nearly 600 acres and will include “a grand oratory and seven institutes of truth.” It aims to eventually become home to dozens of Catholic families who can live, worship, and go to school together, as well as enjoying swimming, hunting, and horseback riding within a community that shares and preserves their Catholic ideals. 

“There, the faithful can gather to produce the first wave of apostles, planting the seeds for other Veritatis Splendor locations nationally and globally,” said co-founder Kari Beckman. 

“It is a community of true believers who work and live together to safeguard the deposit of faith through an uncompromising fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition,” the website said.

The first phase is to be an oratory “conceived in the architecture and structure of the Italian cathedrals erected in places such as Siena, Florence and Assisi.” To build it and fund other “advancement expenses,” Veritatis Splendor ultimately wants $22 million. As of March 3, they have raised over $37,00o.

“We are building a viculus, a little village, and we want you to join us,” the Veritatis Splendor fundraising site says

But while the website and promotional video are full of apocalyptic music and imagery warning Catholics of wolves and masks, interspersed with video of sun-drenched outdoor Eucharistic benediction and a blonde cowgirl mounting a horse, it’s short on details about how the project will be governed, how funds will be managed, who has oversight over the community of priests who will live there permanently, and how it will ensure its residents live according to Catholic ideals, as they apparently must pledge to do in order to move in.

The site also doesn’t mention that the parent company behind the proposed Veritatis Splendor development, Regina Caeli Inc., was sued in a 2016. The  lawsuit alleged that Regina Caeli, Inc. defamed a whistleblower who threatened to expose RCA’s alleged fraud, tax violations, and violations of the Fair Labor Standard Act, and that they allegedly fired his wife in retaliation. The plaintiffs alleged RCA is “run like a cult.” 

In the diocese but not of the diocese

According to the National Catholic Register’s promotional interview, Veritatis Splendor “is not an official diocesan project; rather, it is an independent, lay-inspired Catholic organization.” 

However, the Veritatis Splendor promotional video refers to Strickland as “co-founder.” Several of the donors thank Bishop Strickland personally for leading the project, on the fundraising site. The bishop is prominent on the project’s promotional video and on the Veritatis Splendor website, which refers to him as “the last priest to be made a Bishop under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.” 

In the video, Strickland says, “Where I come from, people speak plainly.”

The appeals email says, “Bishop Strickland and The Founders of Veritatis Splendor are asking you to join them in support of this mission through sacrificial Lenten almsgiving.” Although the email says Bishop Strickland is soliciting donations, it does not say in the email that the organization is private and not an official diocesan project.

Kevin Wandra of Carmel Communications, which handles public relations for Veritatis Splendor, said, “This is not a diocesan effort.” But the bishop is indisputably using his name and his office to direct donations and support to the project.

Also, his services as priest are included in the highest tier of perks offered to donors

Donors who contribute $25 will receive his book, Guard the Deposit of Faith, but donors who contribute $10,000 are entitled to a tour and a private dinner with the founders, and it says “Bishop Strickland will also celebrate Mass for all those in attendance.” 

It is common practice for priests to accept a voluntary stipend when they say Mass by request, and the typical amount is $5 $10. No stipend is required, though, so as to avoid even the appearance that Mass is being sold for money. The voluntary collection of a stipend is distinct from the practice of simony, or collecting temporal goods for spiritual services.

Mass with Bishop Strickland is only listed as a perk for donors at the $10,000 level; it is not offered as a perk to those who contribute $5,000 or less. 

Wandra disagreed that listing Mass as part of a perk might possibly be perceived as simony.

“It is very clear that the donation is for Veritatis Splendor, regardless of whether one gets to receive a gesture of appreciation for that gift. For those who donate more than $10,000, we will be having a special dinner to thank them and show them in person the plans for the property. And Mass will be celebrated for anyone who attends as a courtesy since these will be planned for Sundays on the property,” Wandra said. 

 

Priests who stay put

In a typical diocesan parish, the bishop assigns parish priests according to the changing needs of the community in which they live. Assignments generally last 5-7 years, but are rarely permanent, so that the needs of the entire diocese can be taken into account, and to discourage congregations from forming unhealthy attachments to individual priests.  But in Veritatis Splendor, when the priests arrive, they will stay put. 

“At the center of Veritatis Splendor will be a grand Oratory, led by a community of Catholic priests under a particular charism of apostolic life. These priests will reside in the community and be permanent members of Veritatis Splendor in East Texas and not subject to transfers or re-assignments,”the case statement says.

Wandra clarified that these priests will be Oratorians in the tradition of St. Philip Neri. Oratorians are not a religious order; they are secular priests (i.e., they have not made religious vows). Oratorians must have permission from the local bishop to found an Oratory (which is not a parish church), such as the one proposed for Veritatis Splendor; but the community of priests is relatively autonomous. They answer not to the bishop of the diocese in which they live, but to Rome. The bishop has, according to canon law, a duty to be “vigilant” about their spiritual well-being and about the effects of the community in his diocese, but the relationship between the diocese and such communities is not clearly defined. 

The Veritatis Splendor site gives no information about the proposed community of priests or who would have authority over them. It does not specify that they are Oratorians in the tradition of Philip Neri (the word “Oratorian” does not always refer to this specific community of priests and laymen).

Laymen may not be aware that priests who live and work within their diocese are not necessarily under the authority of their local bishop; and that the diocese would not be obligated to disclose the same information about Oratorian priests that it would about diocesan priests. A confusion of this type occurred in the diocese of Manchester, NH, where the diocese disclosed the names of 73 priests accused of abuse, but did not include the community of Legion priests who lived and worked at a private Catholic school in the diocese, because those priests answered to their superiors in the Legionaires of Christ, and not to the bishop. Many NH residents assumed that the list disclosed by the diocese included all priests who lived and worked in that diocese, but it did not. (The Legion later disclosed its own list, but this, too was not comprehensive.)

 

Financial opacity

The project’s stated goal is to raise $22 million to “build the St. Joseph oratory and more.”

Although the fund drive has already raised nearly $40,000, it does not include any information about the proposed oratory, other than that it will be dedicated to St. Joseph and will be “fashioned to reflect the great Cathedrals you find in the beautiful villages across Italy.”  The “statement of intent” form for donors simply says “I/We understand that my contribution will used [sic] for Advancement Expenses.” 

“This is a brand new mission and much depends on raising money to make it possible like any good mission. So there are things that we just don’t know,” said Lisa Wheeler, one of the co-founders of the project. 

Kari Beckman, founder of Veritatis Splendor, is also the co-founder of Regina Caeli Academy with her husband Rich Beckman. The donation form for Veritatis Splendor asks that checks be made payable to “Regina Caeli Academy for Veritatis Splendor” at Regina Caeli Academy’s address in Roswell, Georgia. Veritatis Splendor is listed on its site as “a division of Regina Caeli, Inc.” 

According to Wandra, the governing board of Veritatis Splendor is the board of Regina Caeli, Inc.  According to RCA’s website, board members are: Rich Beckman, Fr. Peter Idler, Daniel Saegaert, Fr. Augustine Tran, James Faber, Jim Graham, Frank Scarchilli, and Fr. John Paul Walker. 

In 2016, Regina Caeli Inc. (RCA), Rich Beckman, Fr. Peter Idler, Daniel Saegaert, Fr. Augustine Tran, as well as Steven Konsin, Norbert Maduzia, and Joshua Allen were sued by former members. The suit alleges that RCA defamed a whistleblower who threatened to expose RCA’s alleged fraud, tax violations, and violations of the Fair Labor Standard Act, and that they allegedly fired his wife in retaliation.

Regina Caeli is a homeschool hybrid tutoring program in which paying members homeschool their children for three days a week, using a standardized curriculum, and the school provides support and access to tutors and extracurricular activities. Parents who are also tutors receive a discount on the entire program, and all members are expected to fundraise and to recruit new members, in addition to paying tuition. Tuition, which covers two classroom days (for which uniforms are required), ranges from $2,800 per PreK student for a half day to $4,500 per high school student. 

Many members describe Regina Caeli as the best of both worlds, and praise the supportive, close-knit community and structure it provides. But according to the two former members who sued Regina Caeli, Inc. and its board members in 2016, it’s “run like a cult.”

John and Marie Kruse of Michigan alleged that their family of eight children was kicked out of the program shortly before Christmas after John Kruse threatened to expose Regina Caeli’s alleged financial irregularities. 

The suit alleged that, when John Kruse asked to review financial information so he could determine how the school was spending the money their group raised and solicited, the director responded that “it was not RCA’s ‘style’ to provide any financial information, other than the IRS form 990’s,” and then allegedly attacked Kruse’s motive for inquiring.

The suit alleges that, when John Kruse sent a letter threatening legal action if RCA did not provide more transparency, Marie Kruse was locked out of her tutor account so she could no longer work, and that the entire family was abruptly dismissed from the program. The suit alleges RCA threatened to sue John Kruse for communicating with other families in the program, damaging his reputation. 

The Kruses alleged that “complete, blind, unquestioning obedience to RCA’s officers and the Directors is demanded or the family is subjected to humiliation, ostracization and expulsion.”

The suit alleged the RCA was not in compliance with Michigan’s laws covering charities who solicit funds, and that it misled parents about whether their donations would be tax deductible. It also alleged that Marie Kruse invested significant time and money in an intensive “Master Tutor Certification” program, but was denied the alleged promised raise in pay and choice in tutoring assignments. 

The lawsuit was settled out of court.

I asked Wandra whether Veritatis Splendor will be more transparent than Regina Caeli in how it manages and allocates its funds, to avoid similar legal battles in the future. Wandra responded,

“Veritatis Splendor, as a project of Regina Caeli Inc., will be as transparent as a non-profit endeavor is required to be, and has done so explicably in all the ways expected.  Regina Caeli Inc. already files its Yearly 990, issues an Annual Report made available to the public on its website and follows all the requirements of the IRS and the guidelines of the 501 (c) 3 tax code.”

Regina Caeli’s most recent tax forms list their total assets in 2018 at $4.2 million, with $3.4 million in liabilities.

“Any parent who questioned RCA’s lack of proportionate financial support for the Detroit Program was harshly criticized by RCA staff and accused of attacking RCA and pressured to leave the program,” the Kruse suit alleged.

The lawsuit alleged that RCA claimed they ejected the Kruse family for their “effort to ‘create discord and disunity in the community.'”

RCA denied the allegations and threatened to countersue the Kruses for defamation before the suit was settled out of court.

“Regina Caeli Inc. was not sued for fundraising fraud,” Wandra clarified.  

 

Communication

When I called Veritatis Splendor co-founder Kari Beckman for comment, she declined to respond, but said that I should direct my questions to co-founder Lisa Wheeler at Carmel Communications, whose name and contact information are listed on the site’s case statement as the person to call for questions about Veritatis Splendor.

I told Beckman’s office that I had already left two voicemails for Wheeler and that she had not responded; but they said again that I should contact Wheeler. I then sent Wheeler, who is a Facebook friend, a private message via Facebook messenger. Receiving no response, I then wrote on Wheeler’s Facebook wall to ask her to check her messages and voicemail. She responded by denying that she had received any voicemails. She also denied that her name was on the Veritatis Splendor website, and denied that she was the point of contact for media inquiries. Wheeler also claimed that someone from Carmel Communications had already responded to the media inquiries I had submitted through the form on the site. (I had not received a response.) 

Wheeler told me, “no one is avoiding answering your questions,” and then furnished me with Kevin Wandra’s name and contact information, which do not appear on the Veritatis Splendor site. Then, about an hour after Wheeler’s response, I received a response from the site’s media inquiry form. 

Bishop Strickland declined to respond to questions either by phone or email.  When Wandra responded, he indicated that he had seen the questions I sent directly to the bishop’s office, and “in order to streamline things” Wandra took the initiative of adding a response quoting the bishop to one of those questions. When I asked if he was speaking for the bishop, since the bishop had clearly shared my email with him, he did not respond.

 

***
Image with VS logo is a still from the promotional video embedded above. All other images are screenshots from the site, from the case statement, and from the fundraising site. 

EDIT 7:25 PM March 3: I stated: “It is common practice for priests to accept a voluntary stipend when they say Mass by request, and the typical amount is $5.” The correct amount of a typical stipend is $10.

On disenfranchisement and community

The question of felony disenfranchisement is in the news again. Depending on what state you’re in, if you commit a certain class of crime, you may be prohibited from voting even after you serve your time, sometimes for the rest of your life.

I won’t go into the particulars of the specific question in the news, because, as is so often the case, the really interesting part is how the law plays out in the life of actual people.

If you had asked me in the past, I’d probably have said that it only seems fair. I would have said that if you don’t want to play by the rules, then you shouldn’t get to be involved in any part of the process of making the rules; and that’s what voting is, I would have said: Getting to choose who makes the rules. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.

I think differently now, about a lot of things. Specifically about felony disenfranchisement, I began to change my mind when I heard a man tell his personal story. He said that when he emerged from prison after a long sentence for a felonious crime, he was a different man.

What he had done in the heat and foolishness of youth, he regretted every day of his life since then. It was right and just that he be punished; he accepted this. But when he emerged from prison in an election year, everyone around him was busily making plans and arguing and getting involved . . . and he was out.

It wasn’t just that this was unpleasant. It struck him to the heart. He felt that he was being placed outside the realm of human activity, and it changed how he thought of himself as a human. He was being told that no one expected him to act like a regular citizen. And so he didn’t. He began to fall back into petty crime, mugging and robbing and fighting.

A complex story, to be sure. No one thing is ever to blame for the actions of a human being with free will. But I was struck in a brand new way by how wounded was his sense of self by being excluded from this right, and how directly his sense of self affected his sense of self as part of the community. If you’re not part of a group, why should you act as if you are? You’d look like a fool.

There was a law that said he didn’t have a stake who represented him, and he took that to heart, and began once again to treat his fellow man as if they were not connected — and everyone suffered. He took it personally, and he acted out personally.

And in a way, it was reasonable to do so, because living in a community is a personal thing, which means that being made to feel like you’re not part of the community is also a personal thing.

These past few months, the daily news has been an absolute firehose of larger-than-life events. Topics of life and death importance; issues that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a citizen, a Christian, a human.

When I sit down to write, I am overwhelmed with helplessness at what one can possibly say, when everything that’s going on is so huge. And at the same time, the misunderstandings and dishonest discourse about these issues have also been huge, and hugely alienating.

People do not wish to understand each other; they only wish to rule over each other. And as someone who doesn’t wish to triumph or be triumphed over, I feel like I have nothing to say.

I have been feeling alienated from my own country, from my own democratic process, in a way that feels disastrous, like something I can’t recover from. I feel like huge machines are whirling away at their processes entirely without me. I feel like I don’t recognize the place anymore. I’m not literally disenfranchised; I can vote. But I’m having a hard time feeling like I should.

I don’t even feel like I can talk to anybody about important things, because the vast, violent processes of American politics are excluding me so definitively.

But there was one night when I didn’t feel that way…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Committees are no substitute for true community

We used to belong to a parish that was a true community. It was genuinely diverse, with rich and poor people, old and young, able-bodied and impaired, and racially and culturally varied; but there was a sense of unity that I rarely experienced elsewhere, in any group of people of any kind, Catholic or otherwise.

When we got on the parish mailing list, we started to get regular emails: So-and-so needs a ride to the doctor on Thursday; So-and-so needs help changing the oil in his car. I didn’t happen to give birth while we attended that church, but I can easily imagine the landslide of casseroles and hand-crocheted booties that would have come my way if I had.

There was a very clear spirit of love present, and it was concrete and immediate, not abstract. They did have programs and official groups, but there was also a constant exchange of help and concern between individuals, one to one.

It’s tragic that this parish stands out in my head, rather than being the norm. Part of the magic was, of course, that it was small.  Of course little parishes aren’t automatically kind and generous and warm and giving, but they can be. But more and more in the 21st century, they don’t have the chance, because smaller churches are shuttered and de-consecrated, to be transformed into condos or pubs, or just bulldozed; and their former congregations are shunted into high capacity consolidated churches that can serve a wide community.

This is partly because of poor attendance. You can’t pay for lights and heat and insurance if hardly anyone is turning up. But it’s also because astronomically huge gobs of money are going to pay off sex abuse lawsuits, and there’s none left to pay for things like, well, keeping lots of little churches open.

Don’t get me wrong: Victims should be paid. Pressure on parishes is not their fault. But this slow-moving avalanche of the sex abuse scandal is largely crushing other innocent people, and because of the sins of some perverts in pointy hats, people who depended on the Church for help can no longer get it.

And so it goes. Each time a little church closes due to financial strain, there’s one less opportunity for a little gem of a parish to become a warm, busy little hub of charity in the name of Christ.

In big parishes, of course, it’s still possible for the church to care for needy people, whether what they need is food or clothing or help with their electric bills or help finding a job. But what often happens, if the money is there at all, is that there’s a program for everything: A program to feed the homeless, a program for divorcees, a program for widows, a program for youths.

It’s a good thing for needs to be served. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. But there are grievous drawbacks to the “there’s a program for that” model. . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

How can we get beyond the battle of the sexes?

Why don’t we take a moment to catch our breath on this frantic sprint to dehumanize half the human race? This is not some lame attempt at both siderism. I’m simply asking everyone who’s angry to ask sincerely, “How likely is it that I’ll win this war using the tactics I’m using?”

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Five pieces of advice for pastors (and a thank-you)

Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”

Can do.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by photographer Matthew Lomanno, part of his visual essay North Country Priest. Used with permission.