Milwaukee Archdiocese priest on leave for alleged relationship with layman

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Milwaukee Archdiocese judicial vicar
The Milwaukee Art Museum and city skyline are seen in an undated aerial photograph taken over the waterfront in Milwaukee, Wis. (OSV News photo/Chelsey Lewis and Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Reuters)

(OSV News) — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has placed its judicial vicar, who served as pastor of two parishes, on administrative leave after media reports emerged that he has been living with a man in an apparent romantic relationship.

In a Dec. 1 statement shared with OSV News, the archdiocesan vicar for clergy said that Father Mark Payne has been “placed on administrative leave from his role both as Judicial Vicar and as pastor” of St. Monica Parish in Whitefish Bay and St. Eugene Parish in Fox Point, “effective immediately.”

In addition, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki “is also initiating a formal canonical investigation of the situation,” said Father Nathan Reesman, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, in the statement.

The move comes after a Nov. 30 report in the Catholic media outlet The Pillar that said that Father Payne had since 2003 been sharing a condo with an unnamed layman whom he hired last year to teach at St. Monica Parish School.

The man — who had been introduced after a Christmas Mass as Father Payne’s “good friend,” said The Pillar — resigned in April to “dedicate more time to caring for his family,” Father Payne was quoted as saying.

According to The Pillar, the man had portrayed his relationship with Father Payne as “a romantic couple,” posting social media images of them on vacation and at gay pride events. The Pillar said it had been told by unnamed archdiocesan priests that “they were aware that Payne had long shared his residence with a layman” but had not been introduced to him.

The Pillar also reported that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee confirmed it had verbally warned Father Payne about his “lifestyle” but, as of Nov. 30, did not plan to pursue a canonical investigation.

Full investigation underway

Without naming The Pillar, Father Reesman’s statement acknowledged the article, saying that “the story raised questions about the fidelity of Father Mark to his promises as a priest, and also about the response of the Archdiocese to our knowledge of the situation.”

Father Reesman said in his statement that “the Archdiocese had been made aware of the concerns that were noted in the news story, and we shared with Father Payne all the information that had been shared with us.”

As part of that notification, “Father was told his hiring of the grade school teacher was not appropriate,” wrote Father Reesman.

“Father Payne assured us that he is faithful to his priestly vows and that the information painted a misleading picture of the situation,” the statement continued. “We offered him the opportunity to clear up any possible misunderstandings before taking the step of initiating a formal investigation.”

However, “with the publicity around the news story we have now decided to move up our timeline and begin a fuller investigative process,” Father Reesman added.

The canonical investigation “will be conducted by an expert from another diocese to ensure maximum objectivity,” he said.

An acting judicial vicar and an administrator for the parishes will be appointed while Father Payne is on leave and under investigation, according to the statement.

“All of these steps are necessary to arrive at the most fair and accurate analysis of the situation for all involved,” the statement concluded. “Please pray for the next steps in this situation, for Father Payne, for his parish communities, and for all those impacted by this information.”

As of the evening of Dec. 1, Father Payne was still listed as pastor on the website of St. Monica and St. Eugene parishes.

OSV News is awaiting a response to a request for comment from Father Payne.

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.