This Secret Society of Priests Still Won’t Recognize Pope Francis

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

ROME—Father Jeremy Leatherby of Sacramento, California, surely knew what was coming when he continued to preach to the faithful that Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013, is still the one true pope.

Since the election upon Benedict’s retirement of Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, Leatherby has shunned the new pontiff and continued to only refer to Benedict as the church’s true leader in mass. Last week, after several warnings, he was charged with schism, defrocked and excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

“I continue to regard Benedict as retaining the Office of Peter, as mysterious as that might be,” he wrote in an open letter to the Sacramento diocese, referring to the belief that all new popes replace the original pope Peter. “Therefore, I do not regard Bergoglio as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.”

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Leatherby’s story is somewhat complicated by allegations of a breach of his vow of celibacy through romantic affairs with at least two adult women, one of whom he publicly confessed his love to in a now rather embarrassing video that has been widely circulated. In it, he begins by addressing an unidentified woman: “Hey, Baby Doll. I love that without mascara that you are still strikingly beautiful,” the priest says into his phone camera as he drives his car at night. “I love that. I love it, like, a lot. A lot a lot. I loved it earlier when I saw you, and you didn’t have it on, and I loved it all night long.”

In fact, the local bishop Jaime Soto, who cut Leatherby loose, had already banned him from public mass over that offense, though the case had not yet been put before any sort of Vatican or even local diocese board for judgement. But Father Leatherby continued to preach to the anti-Francis flock, going door-to-door, to private homes where worshipers wanted to celebrate mass “in union with Pope Benedict, not with Pope Francis,” he wrote in a letter addressing his excommunication. “Many who have joined me hold, like I do, that Benedict remains the one true Pope.”

His excommunication, which the church views as latae sententiae or self-inflicted “by his words and actions,” may seem extreme, but it is likely meant as a warning to other anti-Francis clergy, Vatican analysts say. He is by far not the only Catholic priest who refuses to accept the current pope, and who, in doing so, continue to sow division in the church at large.

Mike Lewis, who runs the Catholic website “Where Peter Is,” wrote last week about full seminaries that consider themselves “Francis-free zones.” In an article in America Magazine for Jesuits, he pointed to popular anti-Francis voices that seek to push the opposition to this pope, including Michael Voris of Church Militant and the very popular YouTube commentator Taylor Marshall, whose tweets and vlogs have a cult following of their own.

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Writing for Catholic News Agency, the editor-in-chief J.D. Flynn says that such a formal declaration of a priest’s excommunication is a rare phenomenon. Bishop Soto, whom Leatherby also apparently shunned over his loyalty to Francis, had written to Leatherby giving him one more chance to repent and get in line and stop referring to Benedict in mass. But the priest refused and the excommunication was made public.

The Catholic News Agency was able to see a copy of the letter in which Soto wrote that he had heard tapes of the illicit sermons and received a number of testimonies reporting that Leatherby had not only defied his order not to offer mass over the women issue, but had also “preached against the Holy Father and omitted the inclusion of his name and mine from the Eucharistic prayer.”

Leatherby acknowledged everything in his response letter. “Bishop Soto’s sentence of excommunication against me is consistent with my relationship with Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), with whom I cannot morally, spiritually or intellectually, in good conscience, align myself,” he wrote.

Becky Jennings, a volunteer and parent at the school where Leatherby worked, told Flynn that Leatherby had fostered a cult-like following of anti-Francis worshippers. Jennings told CNA that while she had originally liked his rigidity and strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, she then grew wary. “In retrospect, there were a lot of things that should have been red flags,” Jennings told CNA. “There were cult-like elements with Fr. Leatherby and his ‘family’.”

Leatherby comes on the heels of several other instances of anti-Francis resistance. In 2019, 19 priest and bishops signed a letter accusing Francis of heresy, which followed a letter two years earlier signed by 62 priests and theologians that charged that Francis “effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of the sacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church,” in his writings as pontiff, especially his exhortation on marriage and family called “Amoris Laetitia.”

The movement against Francis has been fanned by the former Vatican nuncio to Washington, D.C., Monsignor Carlo Maria Viganò, who remains in hiding after penning a damning 11-page letter and joining forces with American cardinal Raymond Burke and anti-Francis Catholic Steve Bannon whose joint cause to create an alternative to Francis has been renewed after an Italian judge overturned an earlier ruling to stop his alt-right university for like-minded thinkers, which he hopes to build in an ancient monastery outside of Rome. Though held up by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, renovations are said to be underway.

Francis has never directly addressed those who do not recognize him as the leader of the Catholic Church, but he said in June, “There are always those who destroy unity and stifle prophecy,” alluding to the naysayers and critics but clearly choosing to instead turn the other cheek and rise above it.

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