April 14, 2014 -- A half-million dollar renovation to the "weekend" home of the Archbishop of Newark has sparked a major controversy, raising questions about how money donated by church members is being used.
An online petition created by a D.C.-based website, Faithful America, has received more than 23,000 signatures to stop the renovation process, claiming that Archbishop John J. Myers does not need a 7,500-square-foot home for when he retires.
“The house will become the retirement residence when he retires in two year,” Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, told ABC News. “There is an additional suite being added for guests and office space, as well as a whirlpool and an exercise pool being added for therapeutic use, because he has some health issues. This would be beneficial for him in retirement.”
There will also be an elevator and three gas fireplaces added, Goodness said.
Protesters say the additions are unnecessary and lavish, and have contrasted Myers' lifestyle to that of Pope Francis, who lives in a small apartment in Rome with other priests.
Faithful America could not be reached by ABC News for additional comment. But the Rev. John Bambrick, pastor of a parish in Jackson Township, part of the Diocese of Trenton, said the lavish spending reflected poorly on the church and highlights the contrast between Myers and Pope Francis.
“I think it makes people question where their donations are going," Bambrick told ABC News today. “It's embarrassing to the church and the clergy and it’s an insult to the people and God."
“Most of the congregation when they hear about it they just think it is outrageous. They think they should sell it," Bambrick said.
“It’s really astounding given the fact that the pope teaches the bishops to live simply,” Bambrick added, noting that Pope Francis has admonished priests "don’t buy fancy cars and live simply.”
But Goodness said the $500,000 addition to the home in Clinton Township, in Hunterdon County, N.J., is necessary. “He will just not stop having responsibilities for the diocese anymore [after retirement]. We need to have an office space for him,” Goodness said.
“The way the house is being used now, he is never out there alone,” Goodness explained. “There are always other people with him. We are expecting that to continue to happen.”
“He [the Archbishop] envisions that there will be other guests or church members [who visit], so he wants to give them more privacy," Goodness said.
Goodness explained to ABC News that protesters are mistaken about how the renovation is being funded.
“The expansion and reservation is expected to cost $500,000. Some of that is being funded through donations that have been given to the church specifically for the renovation,” Goodness said. “The rest of it is coming from the sale of residential property in Connecticut that is owned by the archdiocese that we won’t need anymore. So we are actually consolidating residential properties.”
Goodness said the Faithful America petition is not representative of New Jersey Catholics and that the organization itself is a non-Catholic group that often challenges the church on a range of issues.
“A significant number of these names are not even people from New Jersey and a very large number from New Jersey are not even a part of the archdiocese. It is not a representative of the people in New Jersey," Goodness said.
But the Rev. Bambrick disagreed.
“You want people to give to the poor and support charitable works of the church and building a mansion is not a great inspiration," he said.