By now you’ve probably heard the news about Fr. Jeremy Leatherby, the Sacramento priest whose latae sententiae excommunication was announced by Bishop Jaime Soto last week. Bishop Soto explained in his letter to the faithful that Leatherby “placed himself and others in a state of schism with the Roman Catholic Church,” meaning that he had “separated himself from communion with the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, and other members of the Catholic Church.”
This is just the latest chapter in a continuing soap opera in Sacramento involving the popular priest (who comes from a large and prominent local Catholic family that owns a famous chain of ice cream shops), his supporters, and Bishop Soto.
For more than four years, Fr. Leatherby has been suspended from active ministry due to allegations of misconduct. The reason for the suspension was explained in a 2018 letter to priests by Fr. Mark Richards, the vicar general of the Sacramento diocese:
“Fr. Leatherby was placed on leave in March 2016 due to a credible allegation of ministerial boundary violations with an adult woman. A subsequent preliminary investigation determined that a formal canonical process would be needed to investigate the circumstances around this allegation.”
In the letter, Fr. Richards admitted that the process had been taking much longer than expected:
“To the frustration of us all, it took longer than we would have liked to assemble a panel of canonical experts independent of the diocese to address this case.”
Leatherby’s suspension has been widely protested, and his “unjust” treatment at the hands of the diocese became a cause célèbre for a subset of U.S. Catholics. The website Church Militant ran numerous articles in his defense, describing him as a “whistleblower priest” who stood up to his corrupt bishop. They ran a story in October 2018 about his late grandfather, David Leatherby, Sr., who picketed Bishop Soto’s office every day to demand his resignation. They highlighted a petition, signed by hundreds of his supporters, calling for Leatherby’s reinstatement to active ministry.
Church Militant also published an article about an online apostolate called “St. Joseph’s Battalion,” which has posted dozens of videos in support of Leatherby, who they regard as “The Dry Martyr of Sacramento” (some of the videos seem to have been taken down since last week). The website for the group includes as part of its mission to “take back the Diocese of Sacramento,” as well as the restoration of Leatherby to the active priesthood. Both of these goals are described as “requests of Our Lady.”
Leatherby admits that in recent months he began celebrating the Sacraments again and ministering as a priest, in defiance of the parameters of his suspension. Additionally (and also by his own admission), he has begun refusing to mention either the name of Pope Francis or that of Bishop Soto in the Eucharistic prayer during Mass. Instead, he’s saying the name of the pope emeritus, Benedict.
Leatherby has embraced the theory that Benedict’s resignation was invalid. I wrote about this theory last year when analyzing numerous troubling statements from Cardinal Burke. Unlike Cardinal Burke, however, Leatherby leaves no questions about where he stands, writing:
“I continue to regard Benedict as retaining the Office of Peter, as mysterious as that might be. Therefore, I do not regard Bergoglio as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Frighteningly, I believe he may be the head of the “counter church” about which Venerable Fulton Sheen prophesied, or “the anti-church” spoken of by Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), or the “parallel church” written about recently by Archbishop Vigano.” (emphasis mine)
Fr. Leatherby, like Italian priest Fr. Alessandro Maria Minutella, has been formally declared excommunicated from the Catholic Church by his bishop for rejecting the validity of Francis’s papacy. Similar to Minutella, he has a charismatic personality and has loyal supporters. What remains to be seen is whether Leatherby is a bellwether of things to come in the American Church, or if he is an isolated case — a lone suspended priest who, upon realizing that his chances of returning to diocesan ministry were slim, decided to exploit the anti-Francis atmosphere in an attempt to retain his status as a religious authority.
In his recent article about Fr. Minutella for Crux, John Allen describes the priest as a Don Quixote-type figure with a large online following as well as an offline constituency numbering in the hundreds. Leatherby, like Minutella, also has hundreds—if not thousands—of followers in Sacramento. According to reports, his recent Sunday Masses have been attracting around 350 attendees.
But there are other factors that suggest a significant schism could occur. For one thing, the Leatherby family is very prominent in Sacramento and in the local Catholic Church. The family owns Leatherby’s Family Creamery, a chain of ice cream parlors in the area. His grandparents were converts to the Catholic faith, with 10 children, 30 grandchildren, and 44 great-grandchildren. Jeremy Leatherby’s father, Dave Jr., is a deacon in the diocese, and two close family members are nuns.
JD Flynn of CNA spoke to a former parishioner of Fr. Leatherby about the influence of his family in the local Catholic community, reporting,
“She emphasized that in her view, Leatherby’s family members, many of whom have been connected to the parish, are a ‘pr machine,’ trying to promote the idea that the priest is the victim of persecution, ‘like a mafia,’ Jennings added. Leatherby’s defenders, Jennings said, have smeared the reputation of the priest’s alleged victim within the parish community.”
He has had his family’s support so far. If they decide to follow him into schism, there could be a serious rift in the local Church. Certain conservative Catholic apostolates and media outlets have been unflinching in their support for him and their opposition to Bishop Soto over the last four years. In the last few days, Church Militant has been silent on this story, however. Are they taking a wait-and-see approach?
There’s a chance the Leatherby movement could prove to be more serious than it appears on the surface, as it seems there are other strange things happening in the Catholic scene in Sacramento.
Here is where the story overlaps with my colleague D.W. Lafferty’s recent exposé of the growing “Marian apocalypticism” movement in the Church. In his most recent installment, D.W. wrote about Fr. Michel Rodrigue, a French Canadian priest who claims to receive revelations from God, Mary, and other saints. These are featured prominently on the website Countdown to the Kingdom and in a book called The Warning: Testimonies and Prophecies the Illumination of Conscience by Sacramento author Christine Watkins.
Watkins’ book is currently ranked #860 overall in Amazon’s sales rankings. It is also currently ranked #3 in the category “Catholicism,” and #1 in the subcategories “Christian Prophecies,” “Prophecies,” and “Mysticism.” The Kindle version is currently #1 in the Mariology category. Even though it has been out for nearly a year, her book is far outselling newer titles by more conventional Catholic authors, including Bishop Robert Barron, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Steven Bullivant, Fr. Donald Calloway, George Weigel, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and Cardinal Robert Sarah. It’s also currently outselling Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration. She has other books that are also very popular.
The Warning is published by Queen of Peace Media, Watkins’ Sacramento-based apostolate. Despite both the author and the publisher residing in the diocese of Sacramento, the book recently received an “imprimatur” from Ramón C. Argüellas, a Filipino archbishop who was forced by the Vatican to resign in 2017 after issuing a decree authenticating a local Marian apparition that was ruled non-supernatural by the Vatican in 1951.
Kevin Symonds recently explained on his blog what is required for a valid imprimatur:
“Catholic Canon Law states (canon 824 §1) that there are two authorities in the Church who can grant the Imprimatur:
- The local Ordinary of the author;
- The local Ordinary of the publisher/where the books are to be published.
Of course, the Holy See may also grant the Imprimatur in virtue of its universal jurisdiction.”
In other words, since both the author and the publisher are based in the diocese of Sacramento, the person who can legitimately grant the book an imprimatur is Sacramento’s Bishop Jaime Soto, whose hands appear to be quite full.
Sacramento is a large diocese, but quite often the entrenched local Catholic community seems much more tight-knit. We can only hope that all Catholics in Sacramento will take the example of Father Leatherby as a warning regarding how far the Church is willing to bend before taking action against the rejection of its authority. Figures like Fr. Leatherby are capable of starting the sort of domino effect that can lead to a wider schism.
I hope that won’t happen, and I encourage everyone to join with Bishop Soto in prayer:
“May the intercession of our Blessed Mother Mary help Fr. Leatherby to repent of the harm he has inflicted on the Church. With maternal solicitude, may she gather us together into the one communion of the Church, holy and purified by the blood of the Lamb, her Son, Jesus.”
Image: Inside Sacramento Catholic cathedral. By User:Fkearney – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32158681