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From Beacon Hill to ‘Bishop Bling,’ clergy housing faces new scrutiny

Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama of Atlanta and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, far right, of Atlanta walk in procession with bishops from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina after concelebrating Mass at the tomb of Blessed John XXIII in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on May 8, 2012. The bishops were making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama of Atlanta and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, far right, of Atlanta process after Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on May 8, 2012. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

(RNS) Bye-bye, “Bishop Bling.” So long, “Pastor Perks.” The so-called “Francis effect” may be real, at least when it comes to clerical housing, and could be coming to a church near you.

Pope Francis famously eschewed the trappings of the papal office, including deluxe digs in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, and the pressure of his example seems to be making itself felt.

Last week, the pontiff accepted the resignation of the most ostentatious offender, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg in Germany, aka “Bishop Bling” who spent a cool $43 million on a swank new residence and office complex while cutting staff.

Now Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta is the latest to feel the peer pressure. On Monday (March 31), Gregory responded to anger over his decision to move into a new $2.2 million home by repeatedly apologizing in a letter to his flock and saying he would explore the possibility of selling the mansion and moving into simpler quarters.

Here are some of the latest controversies over clerical lifestyles:

“Bishop Bling” was in a class of his own, spending nearly $500,000 on walk-in closets, nearly $300,000 on a fish tank, more than $200,000 on a spiral staircase and $20,000 on a bathtub. Tebartz-van Elst also spent more than $600,000 on artwork — at a time when some dioceses in the U.S. are selling their collections; the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently announced it would auction off several Thomas Eakins works.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory led off his column of apology with this complaint from a parishioner, which sums up the new dynamic: “We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for.” Gregory explained the rationale behind his move and the purchase of the new home, using a bequest from the nephew of “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell. But he conceded the reasons weren’t nearly sufficient to justify the move to the 6,000-square-foot house in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.

In New Jersey, Newark Archbishop John Myers hasn’t opted for penitence, and instead is defending the expenditure of some $500,000 to add a three-story, 3,000-square-foot addition to his already spacious retirement home. The new wing will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator.

“Archbishop Myers obviously is not paying any attention to the pope,” says Charles Zech, who has studied bishops’ spending as faculty director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University’s business school.

The Diocese of Camden, N.J., includes one of the poorest cities in the country, which is partly why Bishop Dennis Sullivan made headlines in January for spending $500,000 to buy an historic 7,000-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, three fireplaces, a library, a five-car garage and an in-ground pool. The diocese said Sullivan needs the space to entertain dignitaries and donors. Not everyone’s buying that. “This is a joke,” parishioner John Miller told the local paper. “Jesus was born in a stable.”

Catholics aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Trinity Church in Boston, an Episcopal congregation with a blue-blood heritage and an extensive ministry to the poor, sparked controversy in February for purchasing a $3.6 million Beacon Hill condo for its rector, the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. The church says the outlay is a good investment and won’t dent its $30 million endowment, but some in the pews aren’t happy.

Last fall, the 33-year-old pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, Steven Furtick, came in for criticism for plans to build a 16,000-square-foot estate with 7.5 bathrooms and an electrified gate. Furtick, a Southern Baptist who heads one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations, probably didn’t help his cause when he said that the $1.6 million home is “not that great of a house.” But the purchase seems to be moving ahead nonetheless.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • I would say that it is most appropriate that this wonderful revelation of unbridled excess is revealed to the USA RCC masses (small “m”) on April 1, 2014. Of course, the question is: Do we have just one FOOL or many fools?

    BLING in the North……..Archbishop Myers in Newark, NJ


    BLING in the South……Archbishop Gregory in Atlanta

    It’s all part of the leadership training in “hubris” that is part of their advancement. It is so blatantly obvious that many of these leaders have never had to justify and/or explain their conduct and decision-making to anyone. You can tell because they have that “deer in the headlights” look when confronted with such immature, insensitive and un-Christian decision-making and conduct.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Philadelphia, PA

  • These “bishops Bling” should be investigated for misuse of funds as this is church money they are using to satisfy their lavish, wordly needs and inclinations. They are building their own personal “cathedrals”, for themselves; and to wine and dine their friends likely, clerics, of the same inclination. So, Bishop Bling , and to all those like you…….do you ever admonish your flock about the dangers of: “the WORLD, the flesh and the devil?”
    Parishioners should take stronger action against these bishops…..protest their lavish lifestyles. The American Catholic church need to establish a credible committee to look into the lavish habits of these ” bishops Bling and boot them out of the church…

  • Now that the media has brought up what needs to be discussed I would also like to see the media, both liberal as well as conservative, bring up the fact that a large number of high officials within the various protestant faiths also live in over priced mansions. But something tells me that it will never be reported because it is obvious that the media loves to have the Roman Catholic Church as a whipping boy!

  • And will you ask the same of the various protestant churches where their ministers live in overpriced mansions?

  • It’s sad that Archbishop Gregory justified the expenditure for such outrageous dwelling. I think if he truly looked inward he would know in his heart that living lavishly is not what the Gospel and his vows ask of him. Or maybe he didn’t take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I guess if we really want something we can all find ways to justify getting them.

  • Definitely!!

    Especially the ones who go on television to guilt little old ladies out of their retirement savings. There is no lower form of human being than one who robs from the poor.

  • I am an equal opportunity critic.

    The idea that anyone is giving money directly to a church these days is patently ridiculous. Tithing is just asking for religious figures waste your money. Its nothing but spiritual extortion.

    Even a religious charity is a better use of funds. At least they have to publish reports as to how the money is used.

  • Your “facts” about the Diocese of Camden’s purchase of a new residence for our bishop has some very important facts omitted. First, it’s comical to refer to a $500,000.00 house in New Jersey as a “mansion”. If that was the case, half of New Jerseyans live in mansions. Second, the house did not cost the diocese $500,000.00! The bishop’s former house, which was In need of repairs, was sold for $395,000.00 and the proceeds of that sale were used to buy the new house, which makes a net cost of $105,000.00. That’s an important fact conveniently omitted by detractors. Third, the house will be used to house 2 other priests, who would otherwise have to be housed somewhere else. Also, the house has work/meeting space in it. You state in the article that the house is a “7,000-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, three fireplaces, a library, a five-car garage and an in-ground pool”. A quick fact-check would have revealed some glaring inaccuracies. The house is 5,976 square feet, not 7,000, it has 6 bedrooms, not eight, it has a three-car garage, not 5, and 2 of the bathrooms are ‘powder rooms’ or half-baths, as some people call them. It appears that some of the other bishops may live an extravagant lifestyle, but Bishop Sullivan does not. There’s no story here, other than a humble servant of God who has given his life to the Lord.

  • Greg, your apologetic tone strains credibility beyond reasonable limits.

    ” The house is 5,976 square feet, …it has 6 bedrooms, …, it has a three-car garage, and 2 of the bathrooms are ‘powder rooms’ or half-baths, as some people call them”

    This is still very much a mansion even by New Jersey’s generous standards. The average house with half the bedrooms and bathrooms, for a family of 3-4 has about 1/3rd the square footage of this one (usually about 1600-2000 sq. feet).

    This is very extravagant for 3 people in urban central New Jersey. Godfathers of the New Jersey Mafia rarely had houses that big.

  • In 2009 a half gallon of milk cost 89cents today it cost 42.09
    In 1969 a gallon of gas was 22.9 centers per gallon today it is $3.69.9 per gallon.
    Watch HGTV and see what the dollar buys in homes across the USA.
    Ten years ago the Bishop’s Residence which belongs to the people not the Bishop would have cost $200,00. to it is 2.2 Million.
    Pope Francis does not live in the Papal Apartments because he likes people around him. He does not want to be alone. The next Pope may want to live in the Papal Apartments will that make him bad.
    In my humble opinion this is a lot of unecessary babble.

  • Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story and this is the case with this bishop. Apparently, you’re not familiar with New Jersey since you stated that this home is in “urban central New Jersey”, when it’s actually in suburban South Jersey, where most developments in this area have houses in the 3000-4000 square foot range. Regardless of the square footage of this house, the fact remains that it cost the diocese only $105,000.00, and that’s a deal! I think that some would still complain even if the house was free. and they wouldn’t be happy unless the bishop was living in a tent.

  • Please don’t cast that net so wide. I know of NO pastor’s of any of the churches I deal with in Northern Virginia living in opulence. Each one of us is subject to the budgets based on our tithes and most are paid AFTER the critical areas of church upkeep, missions and outreach. Most pastors that I know are willing to forego parts of their pay to meet the needs of the church and congregations when necessary. While it is popular to lump us all in with those mega-church leaders and self-promoting evangelists who call for money for prayers, the majority of our churches have congregations that are in the 40 – 175 person attendance. Even the larger churches where the congregations goes over 1000 pay attention to ensure their pastors are paid equitably. We just hear more about the wastrels

  • I live in New Jersey!

    500K would buy half that size outside of the most depressed areas. Certainly few homes with an in-ground pool.

    I got my overspending New Jersey bishops mixed up. I mistook this one for the one in Newark.

    With that said, 6000 sq feet is a lot of space for 3 people, even in what is ostensibly a depressed unofficial suburb of Philadelphia.

    Average home sizes are about 1500-2000 sq feet (for a 3-4 bedroom house). 3000-4000 sq ft houses are very much luxurious by the standards of the area. The price represents the crappy economy of the area. I made no issue on that. But to claim that home is not a mansion is absolute horsecrap.

  • So maybe churches should be audited more often when they file their yearly IRS forms for tax exemptions. Something to keep them a little more honest.

  • I don’t think this is “unnecessary babble” as one poster claimed when the Bishops are the ones that keep proclaiming their holiness and good heartedness! Theie infallibility, they can’t make mistakes! IF you are going to toot your own horn about your purity you are setting yourself up for scrutiny and someone will discover a few or several skeletons in the closets! They put themselves into this spot.

  • What a racket!

    These hucksters are selling an invisible product (God)
    which can be shaped into anything the buyer’s imagination wants (Love, Eternal Goodness, Life Spirit..etc)

    And they get free housing and bling in the bargain!
    It is *almost* miraculous how many suckers line up every Sunday.

  • Arch Bishop Gregory presumably lives alone in this mansion. Where do the other two bishops who are assigned to the arch bishop actually live? Are there two other mansions, or do they live with a group of priests as most of us presumed of Gregory?

    The larger diocese do have auxiliary bishops, and most of us naively assumed that in such situations there would be a very large rectory next to the cathedral that housed maybe the bishops and five of six priests assigned to the church. I don’t think everyone has a vocation or calling to live like Mother Theresa, but I also don’t think Jesus died on the cross so that catholic and protestant ministers could live in mansions.