While the diocese has not commented in detail on the allegations against Leatherby, parishioners say the charges have divided Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Sacramento parish that Leatherby led as pastor until he was removed in 2016.
Leatherby had garnered a large following at the parish, especially attracting devoutly Catholic families as he worked to renew the parish school. But some parishioners say the priest’s leadership was marked with problems from the beginning.
Becky Jennings was a volunteer and parent at Presentation’s school during Leatherby’s tenure there. She said her family, like a lot of families, was attracted to the school because of the priest’s orthodoxy, dynamism, and pastoral attention to parish and school.
The Jennings trusted Fr. Leatherby, at first. They thought he was a faithful priest, and they were impressed by his courage and his kindness.
“In retrospect, there were a lot of things that should have been red flags. There were cult-like elements with Fr. Leatherby and his family,” Jennings told CNA.
She said that because Leatherby was pastorally available and engaged in parish and family lives, a “huge cult of personality formed around him.”
“We would have followed him off the end of the earth and trusted him.”
The priest “used to promote himself as an expert in women’s spirituality and women’s spiritual direction,” Jennings said, and the women he directed were fiercely loyal to him.
In her judgment, Leatherby “formed a ‘harem’ of spiritual directees around him, and used the idea that someone has to be loyal to their spiritual director to abuse and manipulate them,” Jennings said.
The diocese has not identified the woman who alleged misconduct in 2016. But parishioners, talking to one another on social media, have said she was a part of the parish community, a daily communicant, and a former employee of the parish.
When allegations regarding Leatherby emerged in 2016, Jennings said, many people had a hard time believing them, including her family.
It was “devastating,” she said. “We felt like he was the heart and soul of the community.”
But eventually Jennings started hearing stories from parishioners about inappropriate behavior from Leatherby, and those gave her pause. She said she began to believe that “Fr. Leatherby had us all taken in.”
Jennings added that even in his parish leadership, the priest had tried to sow suspicion of outsiders. In early 2016, she said, “there seemed to be growing paranoia that the diocese was out to get our school.” Leatherby, she said, was especially paranoid about losing control of decisions at the school.
Division in the parish is now stark, Jennings said, with some describing Leatherby as “narcissistic” and controlling, while others maintain the priest was persecuted by the Sacramento diocese.
She said she doesn’t believe that Leatherby was removed as an act of retribution. “I think that was invented out of whole cloth,” Jennings told CNA, “or exaggerated.”
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.
Jennings and her family eventually moved away from the parish, she told CNA.
Soto’s letter this week said the excommunication of Leatherby was not related to the 2016 canonical case. That case is not the only instance of suspected misconduct.
Earlier this year, a video circulated online in which Leatherby, who appeared to be driving a car at night, recorded a video message for an unidentified woman, who, according to Leatherby, is not the subject of the 2016 allegation.
“Hey, Baby Doll,” Leatherby says, as he begins the video.
“I love that without mascara that you are still strikingly beautiful. 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. ‘Til the present time, and you still don’t have it on, and you’re still gorgeous.”
After discussing an event he had attended that evening, Leatherby says in the video, “I love you, I love you, I love you, you’re my girl. I imagine I’ll still say a ‘good night’ before I really, really, really go to bed, but I love you, even now, before then. Ok, goodnight, I love you.”
Leatherby said this week that he accidentally sent that message to an unintended recipient, and acknowledged the video “appears to some as a confirmation that I must be guilty of every sensational detail that has been alleged about me,” the priest said.
The priest said his behavior in the video was inappropriate, but denied it is evidence of a sexual relationship with the woman.
According to Leatherby’s open letter, the video was intended for “a woman who is a friend and who has assisted me significantly to, literally, survive and persevere these last few years and to fight for my priesthood,” and was recorded “after too much to drink.”
“I spoke in inappropriate ways, unbecoming of my priestly state, even if on leave. Thus, it can be taken totally out of context. I do not have a sexual relationship with that woman,” he said, claiming that those circulating the video “are spreading one side of a story that you don’t know the truth about.”
His letter said that a “handful of detractors who are out to destroy me,” and are using the video irresponsibly. He also claimed that if he were inclined towards sexual immorality, “those pathologies would have been detected at the Saint John Vianney Treatment Center in Downingtown, PA, which I was required to attend for five months after being placed on leave. They dissected every aspect of my life and person.”
In 2018, Leatherby wrote to his former parishioners, whom he reportedly had been instructed by the diocese not to contact.
“At this time I feel called to exercise my spiritual fatherhood to a number of individuals like yourselves, for whom I have been a Pastor, spiritual father, or priest friend/acquaintance at one time or another. I believe that the times that our Lord, through our Blessed Mother, has been preparing the Church and the world for over the course of many years are hastening upon us. She has said that it would be a time of great confusion and darkness, which we have all experienced in ways,” the priest wrote.
“My sense is that the times are going to get progressively darker. There will be a cacophany (sic) of voices pulling us in one way or another. We will be seeking to hear the voice of Christ in the midst of the clamor. Stay close to sources that will offer authentic Catholic teaching,” he added.
This week, Leatherby said he plans to petition for laicization, because he is no longer “in union with the church over which Bergoglio reigns.” The priest said that he will “live out my priestly promises independently.”
If the priest is laicized, the canonical cases against him would likely conclude without formal resolution. The Sacramento diocese told CNA it will support Leatherby’s petition for laicization.
Through his canon lawyer, Leatherby declined CNA’s interview requests.