Ohio bishop: “We cannot allow scandals to impede our sharing of the Good News”

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

Most Reverend Jeffrey M. Monforton (Image: Diocese of Steubenville | www.diosteub.org)

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, 55, is head of the Diocese of Steubenville in southeastern Ohio. He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, the oldest of three sons in a practicing Catholic family. His father was a claims adjuster for AAA Michigan. He recalled, “We were an average, middle-class family with no questions about our Catholicity.”

Bishop Monforton’s two grandmothers first suggested he consider the priesthood when he was in the eighth grade. He eventually visited the seminary, “but didn’t see it in my future.” Five years later, however, he changed his mind and entered Sacred Heart Major Seminary at age 23.

In 1994, Monforton was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Detroit. He served as a parish priest, teacher, seminary professor and rector, and priest-secretary to Cardinal Adam Maida, who served as archbishop of Detroit from 1990-2009. In 2012, he became bishop of Steubenville, which is home to 34,000 Catholics.

He recently spoke to CWR.

CWR: Tell us about the Diocese of Steubenville.

Bishop Monforton: It some respects, the people of the diocese are like those with whom I grew up. In years past, we were known for our steel mills, with the steel typically making its way to the Detroit auto assembly lines. However, the economy has certainly declined since.

The people here have a strong sense of their Catholic faith, aided by the presence of an outstanding Catholic college, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

We have 41 active priests, plus some religious-order priests. They serve in 57 parishes, although we will soon be closing two due to the retirement of one of our priests. Our priests are men who love the Lord, and may serve in one, two, or three parishes. We have one man, in fact, who serves in four. We have 13 Catholic schools, including three high schools and one junior high.

We’re a banana-shaped rural diocese in the Southeastern part of the state, with one side running along the Ohio River. The chancery is in the extreme northern part of the state, just a short drive from the Youngstown diocese to our north. It’s a four and a half hour drive, however, to reach the southern end of our diocese.

CWR: What goals have you had for the diocese since arriving in 2012?

Bishop Monforton: I want my priests to know that I’m here for them, and that I want to support them. There can be an abyss between a Chief Shepherd and his priests, which I want to avoid. One way I do this is by visiting each parish in the diocese over a two-year period.

Another goal I have had has been the renovation of my church, Holy Name Cathedral in Steubenville. When I arrived, it was falling apart from top to bottom. It has much deferred maintenance, and needs to be brightened inside to make it more attractive for Catholic worship.

There has also been a need to get our schools in line fiscally, especially considering the difficult times our area has had financially. We’ve also introduced ChristLife, a Catholic ministry for evangelization, into a few of our parishes. We want to do our part to promote the New Evangelization, but as we can’t afford a diocesan office, one of our priests is studying in this area and will serve as a resource to us.

CWR: You are an adjunct faculty member at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. What subject do you teach, and how have your experiences on campus been?

Bishop Monforton: I’m in my fifth year teaching there, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I teach an evening class on Christian moral principles. 

As a bishop, I’m charged with teaching, so this gives me the ideal opportunity to teach about faith and morals. It is also an opportunity to keep me focused on the current issues of the day, and how bishops should respond to them. I am more than two, sometimes close to three times their age, but these students want to learn from and engage with me.

I’m pleased that the university itself is a solid Catholic college, in line with the teaching of the Church and the catechism. I consider it part of my pastoral arm.

CWR: Earlier this year, the Diocese of Steubenville had to pay $3.5 million in back taxes because, as you said in a statement, “a misallocation of funds in the finance office occurred between 2004 and 2016 as a result of the actions of the former comptroller,” identified as David Franklin. You explained, “Payroll taxes were withheld from employees’ checks, but the money was not sent to the appropriate taxing authorities. The money that should have been used to pay employee withholding taxes was instead apparently used for other diocesan purposes.” How did something like this occur, and how is the diocese recovering from this experience?

Bishop Monforton: In January, after it became apparent that there were irregularities in the books, I consulted with our diocesan finance council and decided we needed a forensic audit. Such an audit is not cheap, but it was more expensive to do nothing.

In February, we announced that such an audit was going to take place using an out-of-state law firm and accounting firm. I wanted to be as objective as possible, so I pledged to share each month what was happening, to the extent that I could. The audit determined that the diocese had not paid Social Security taxes to the IRS since 2004.

CWR: What have you learned from this experience?

Bishop Monforton: As the old saying goes, “If you don’t have any regrets, you haven’t looked hard enough.” One regret I have is that I did not conduct a forensic audit when I first arrived in Steubenville in 2012. When I talk to my brother bishops, this is one piece of advice I offer them.

CWR: How has it hurt the diocese?

Bishop Monforton: We had to utilize an unrestricted fund to pay the back taxes with interest, and we don’t have a lot of this kind of funding. It was a critical hit to the diocese. I had mentioned, for example, our plans to renovate the cathedral. Funding for this project had been set back for some time. Also, it has greatly limited our ability to offer assistance to schools and parishes that are struggling financially.

And besides the financial hit, a second hit we took is to our trust factor. People are wondering if we know what we’re doing up here. However, we have a new CFO, who is doing remarkable work. Through his efforts, and some time, we hope to be able to regain that trust.

My responsibility now is to be transparent, and take the steps necessary to ensure that something like this will never happen again.

CWR: What are your thoughts on the recent Church scandals, and what are you doing in your diocese to respond to them?

Bishop Monforton: Our purpose in the Church is to share the light of Christ. We cannot allow scandals to impede our sharing of the Good News.

The 2002 Dallas Charter was an effort to make everyone accountable in regard to the protection of children, with the exception of the bishops. Now the behavior of some bishops is being called into question. It is our obligation as bishops to show the people of God that we are here to serve, and that we are accountable as well.

The behavior of Archbishop McCarrick and the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report have cast a dark shadow on the clergy. People need to know their bishops are responding in a positive way.

As I announced to our people in a letter read at parishes the weekend of September 8-9, that I designated Masses for Saturday morning, September 15, as Masses of Reparation for sins committed by Church officials and to promote healing for victims of abuse. I also shared that I was going to personally embrace the Three Pillars of Lent, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. I invited our community to join with me as they are able.

Additionally, I asked parishes to pray the Immaculate Heart of Mary prayer penned by St. John Paul in 1984 for the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I encouraged it be prayed along with the St. Michael the Archangel prayer.

And, on the week of October 9, when we have the Rosary Congress in our diocese, I asked that the Congress be dedicated to the victims of abuse from Church officials and for the building up of the Church in its call to holiness as Jesus instructed his Apostles.

I wanted to be careful not to place too much on the shoulders of the people of God, as it was not their doing that caused these recent scandals. But, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we all have a role to play in reparation.

CWR: Do you have any new initiatives in the diocese?

Bishop Monforton: Beginning with the 2018-19 school year, our Catholic Central High School has inaugurated the Chesterton Academy, which offers a rigorous, integrated, classical high school curriculum. Its goal is to raise up a generation of joyful leaders and saints educated in the classical tradition and truths of the Catholic faith.

CWR: You were priest-secretary to Cardinal Adam Maida for seven years. What memories do you have of him?

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton: He is a visionary with a kind heart. He depended on the counsel of others, and respected those with whom he spoke. He was trained as an attorney and could think clearly and make the tough decisions when he had to. It was a privilege to work for him. He was kind to me, and overlooked my mistakes.

CWR: In 2005, you were with Cardinal Maida for the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. What memories do you have about this time in Rome?

Bishop Monforton: The pope died on a Saturday, the day before Divine Mercy Sunday, and we landed in Rome the following Tuesday. We went to a viewing of the remains of St. John Paul, prayed a Rosary, and spent some time in the presence of his body.

We participated in his funeral liturgy in St. Peter’s Square. He was buried in a simple wooden casket. I remember the pages of the Gospel book flapping in the wind, and as the deacon was coming over to pick it up, the wind slammed it shut. I sat next to Father Daniel Thomas that day, who is today Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo in Northwestern Ohio. He was working in the Congregation for Bishops in Rome at the time.

We went to multiple Masses between the funeral and the conclave, which were both uplifting and gave us strength.

During the conclave, I stayed at the governor’s residence in the Vatican, and celebrated Mass each day for two Polish sisters who were also staying there. We were able to see the cardinals walking back and forth between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel as they went through the process of selecting the new pope.

I remember the two nuns predicting to me on the evening of Tuesday, April 19, that we’d see white smoke [indicating that a new pope had been selected]. It was a particularly dark evening, with the Vatican not lit up as usual. I was walking with the two nuns across the Vatican grounds, and two security personnel ran up to us and ordered us to stop. They saw me first, but when they saw the sisters, they stopped and spoke to them in Italian. They walked away and let us pass. It was then I realized who runs the Vatican!

So we saw the smoke and heard the bells; I was standing by a statue of St. Peter when the introduction of Pope Benedict XVI was made. That night the cardinals had dinner with the new pope, while I enjoyed pizza and German beer with the nuns. That was the special experience I was able to enjoy because I was secretary to a voting cardinal.

CWR: Do you have any recommendations for the average layman-in-the-pew to improve his spirituality?

Bishop Monforton: There are many fine books on Catholic spirituality available, but if I were to recommend a great one to start with, I’d suggest An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. We live in a culture of immediate gratification, but that’s not prayer. Prayer takes work. It takes time. We need to see where Our Lord is moving our hearts. We have to be quiet and listen to him.

CWR: Who are some of your Catholic heroes?

Bishop Monforton: I’d start with my mom and my dad. My mom is still with us; my dad died in 2013. They embraced the gift of the Catholic faith Our Lord gave them and shared it with my brothers and me.

Another Catholic hero of mine is St. John Paul. I met him about once a year when I was working with Cardinal Maida. I had the pleasure of introducing my mother and father to him. My mother still has a photo of the meeting in her home, and I have one as well.

St. John Paul encountered adversity from the Nazis and the Communists but still was able to let Christ’s light shine. He demonstrated the virtue of fortitude, which I myself need as a priest and bishop.

I also admire St. Therese of Lisieux and recommend that everyone read her Story of a Soul. In 1994, after I was ordained a priest, my first assignment was as associate pastor at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak in the Archdiocese of Detroit. In 2005, I was named pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Shelby Township. I’ve always maintained that I’m a closet Carmelite!

We have many wonderful examples of living the Catholic life in the saints. We must not let things discourage us but instead must forge ahead following their example.