A few days before Christmas, the Diocese of Camden, home to one of the most desolate and dangerous cities in America, closed on a $500,000, 6,000-square-foot mansion to serve as the house of their new shepherd, Bishop Dennis Sullivan.
Located seven miles south of Camden in Woodbury, the house is semi-notorious as the most lavish residence in town. There was controversy when it was purchased for the president of Rowan University 14 years ago, and upon his departure it sat empty for two years, with no one willing to pony up the $800,000 asking price.
I guess that makes $500,000 a deal, particularly for 5 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, 3-car garage, game room, and in-ground pool.
Let’s take this statement by a diocesan spokesman at face value: “The diocese purchased the property because the bishop needs a residence and space to hold meetings with potential donors and benefactors. It will well pay for itself and more. We realize others may have a different opinion, but that was the rationale behind the purchase.”
Indeed, these official residences had, in the past, been more than just houses: they were showplaces where the elite were courted for donations.
That was then. This is now.
In a diocese with multiple church and school closings and a poverty-stricken hellhole at its core (sorry, Camden, but you’re basically Beirut-on-the-Delaware, and I say that as your neighbor), buying an upscale residence for a shepherd of souls is not merely wrong (morally, fiscally, and logically), it’s tone deaf. Even if they can justify it to themselves, it’s what’s called “bad optics,” no matter how good a deal they got or to what use they put it.
Did they ever think that a prospective donor, seeing a diocese flush with so much cash they blow it on a mansion, may just think the church doesn’t need their money after all?
There’s no way to spin this to the public as anything other than Bishop Sullivan, lately of posh mid-town Manhattan, settling into a mansion while desperately poor inner-city parishioners drop widow’s mites into the basket to re-felt his teak pool table. In the interest of charity, I’m assuming that certainly was not his intent in approving the purchase, but it’s certainly going to be the perception.