Here are some important updates on the Peter Mitchell essay in TAC, which has caused such turmoil in the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, which has a national reputation for rock-solid orthodoxy, and punching above its weight in generating priestly vocations.
In a statement about the matter, Lincoln Bishop James Conley conceded that the diocese is aware of past misconduct by the late Monsignor Leonard Kalin, its longtime vocations director. According to Catholic News Agency:
In an Aug. 1 statement, the Diocese of Lincoln said that it “is aware of past reports of conduct contrary to prudence and moral law by Monsignor Leonard Kalin, deceased in 2008.”
“The diocese addressed these allegations of misconduct directly with Msgr. Kalin during his time in priestly ministry,” the statement said, adding that the diocese is not aware that Kalin violated any civil laws.
“The Diocese of Lincoln is also aware of past reports of conduct contrary to prudence and moral law by former Diocese of Lincoln priest Peter Mitchell. The diocese addressed these allegations of misconduct directly with Mitchell during his time of ministry in the Diocese of Lincoln.”
In its statement, the diocese emphasized that it “reports all alleged violations of civil law to the proper authorities, and is committed to addressing all violations of prudence, morality, or civil law by its clergy, employees and volunteers at the time they are reported.”
This is a meaningful step by Bishop Conley. Some defenders of Kalin have said that both Peter Mitchell and I owe an apology for a supposedly groundless attack on Kalin’s reputation. Now, though, the bishop himself has said that Kalin was not spotless.
I have been on the phone since early this morning with a number of people in and connected to the Diocese of Lincoln — more on which below — and I have been told by multiple people with personal experience that towards the end of Kalin’s life, the diocese required that students going to visit him go in pairs, not alone. No explanation was given at the time.
Steve Skojec of the Catholic blog One Peter Five, which co-posted the Mitchell essay, observes that Mitchell, in that essay, confesses that he violated his celibacy vow multiple times, with women. Skojec adds:
Reading the two statements [from Bishop Conley] side by side, one is given the impression of a parity of moral gravity in the sins of these two men. But whereas Kalin stands accused of cultivating a number of sexual encounters and other inappropriate behaviors over a long period of time with men being formed for the priesthood under his leadership, here’s what Mitchell admitted to, having first qualified himself clearly as a heterosexual:
In 2017, I accepted laicization from the priesthood as a consequence of having violated my vow of celibacy as a priest on more than one occasion. I lived an unhealthy life as a priest, and I hurt people. I never intended to become such a person, but I did. What I did was wrong. I deeply regret having hurt people who looked up to me as a spiritual leader, and I take full responsibility for my actions.
I highlighted yesterday, in this post, a number of comments from priests and laity who knew Kalin, and who defended his reputation. These are important to keep in mind. If you’ve spent any time covering the abuse scandal, you learn that many people never had the slightest reason to think that someone who certainly committed abuse was doing so. This is what makes sexual abuse so damned destructive: people who say they have no experience of an accused perpetrator’s abusive behavior are often telling the truth — and so are those whose experience is exactly the opposite.
This is not dispositive one way or the other, either about Kalin or anybody else, but experience in these cases teaches that abusers are often master manipulators. It is also important to keep in mind that it is sometimes those who have nothing left to lose who are therefore able to speak out. However, the thing that cost them standing is often the same thing that cost them credibility.
Readers have brought to my attention these Facebook comments by a Catholic layman, now living in Malaysia, who was active in the University of Nebraska Newman Center when Kalin was at the center of student life. This student, defending Peter Mitchell, explains why then-Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz ordered Kalin’s student visitors to go in pairs:
A further comment from this Catholic, who says he’s going to contact Bishop Conley, who was not in the diocese when Kalin was at the Newman Center:
Just before midnight, as Tuesday passed into Wednesday, I approved a comment from a “Liam,” offering a detailed account of a purported 2017 incident with Father Charles Townsend, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and a protegé of Kalin’s. “Liam” was quite specific about the incident, which — I’m going to generalize here — involved Father Tim Danek, a young assistant priest in Father Townsend’s parish, discovering that the pastor had provided alcohol to an 18-year-old altar server, gotten him drunk, and was behaving inappropriately with him. “Liam” provided specific details, which were scandalous but did not involve actual sex. I approved the comment, appending a note reminding readers that these are only allegations.
Reviewing the comment early this morning, though, I took it down, because “Liam” mentioned that his knowledge of the incident comes through the priestly grapevine. Even with the disclaimer I added, I judged it wrong to leave such explosive allegations online without meaningful corroboration. I spent all day today seeking that out.
I found it.
The most important thing is the response of the Diocese of Lincoln to my request for an interview on the “Liam” allegations. After some hours, I received this from Monsignor Timothy Thorburn, the vicar general of the diocese:
Thank you for providing this anonymous posting to [the priest I initially sent it to, having found his name on the diocese’s website]. The Diocese of Lincoln has shared this anonymous posting in the American Conservative blog to proper law enforcement authorities. Any other inquiries may be directed to Richard Rice or Andrew Pease, Diocesan legal counsel, at [phone number].
I left a phone message with Andrew Pease, requesting an interview. I have yet to hear from him. The news here is that whatever happened between Father Townsend and the unnamed altar server now involves the police, according to the diocese. Note well that this was neither a confirmation nor a denial by the diocese. I await a phone call from Pease for the official response.
A number of sources today have suggested to me that “Liam” is a particular Lincoln priest. I left a phone message with that priest, and made an inquiry through the e-mail address he left on his post, asking him if he is the “Liam” of the post. I have not heard from him.
I also learned today from multiple sources, both clerical and lay, that Father Townsend was put on leave in St. Peter’s parish for months, after the alleged incident witnessed by young Father Danek. According to these sources, parishioners were led to believe that Father Townsend had been sent away for some sort of non-specific treatment. After his treatment, the diocese returned Father Townsend to his parish, where, incredibly, he now supervises the very priest who turned him in to the bishop.
“Liam” alleged that the diocese told Father Tim Danek to stay quiet about the matter. I confirmed that with two sources who know Danek personally. One source, a priest I’ll quote below, spoke with Danek this week, and reports that Danek is exhausted, but still not talking about the case. I texted Father Danek’s personal number to ask if he was willing to talk to me about it. He texted back only one word: “Unavailable.”
One of the two sources who knows Danek personally is Peter Mitchell, the former priest and author of the essay that started this controversy. Danek is a former prize pupil of Mitchell, who calls him “my finest student, and one of the finest men you’d ever want to meet.”
Danek never told Mitchell directly what he saw Father Townsend do, according to Mitchell. But Mitchell, who was for years a Lincoln priest, says he has been hearing the same story from many priest sources there: that Tim Danek was silenced by the chancery, and is gagged by an order to obey.
Mitchell says that he considers forcing Father Danek to work under a man like Father Townsend is a form of abuse, as is compelling him to stay silent about what he saw last year that led to Townsend’s temporary departure. Mitchell says Danek “needs somebody to speak up for him,” because it’s cruel to compel him to live and serve in these conditions. People don’t understand, Mitchell says, that good priests who have done nothing wrong also suffer when they are compelled to be silent about clerical wrongdoing.
Mitchell writes in an e-mail:
Will any priest of Lincoln speak out publicly against what is happening right in front of your eyes? Will somebody help the priests and people of the Diocese of Lincoln, who, very sadly, have been being misled by silence and abused up to this very day. What Kalin did is not about me having “sour grapes” against a man who is long-deceased. This is about young men and young priests RIGHT NOW who are being abused. I REFUSE TO BE SILENT ABOUT ABUSE THAT IS OCCURRING AS WE SPEAK. That is why I have spoken.
Emphasis in the original.
There’s more. A Nebraska Catholic couple read about Father Townsend in Liam’s comment, and decided to come forward. They went today to the chancery to hand-deliver to Bishop James Conley a written account of the story I’m about to tell here. I have agreed to keep their name out of this account, but they are known to the bishop, who, the husband told me, received them graciously and compassionately today.
Here is the couple’s story:
In 2008, they moved to a town in the Lincoln diocese in which Father Townsend was the pastor of the local parish. He became their priest.
At the end of 2008, the husband joined a gym in town, and started working out in the morning. When he first started doing this, he’d see Father Townsend there. They fell into the habit of talking as they exercised side by side on the treadmill. For a time, the assistant priest of the local parish would work out with them too.
After working out, the husband would shower at the gym, then head to work. The only facility was a communal shower in the men’s locker room. According to the husband, after Townsend’s assistant priest stopped coming to the gym, Townsend made a point of ending his workout and showering alongside the husband.
“After a couple of weeks of this happening, I started questioning what was going on,” the husband told me. “One day I decided to shower 15 minutes earlier than usual, and sure enough, Father came in.”
Another day, Townsend arrived late for exercise, but when the husband got in the shower, the priest followed him. The husband said this went on even though the rectory was less than a block away. The implication is that it would have been easy for the priest to shower at home instead of in a communal shower at the gym.
Said the husband: “It felt wrong, but I brushed it off.”
Townsend was later transferred to another parish, and the couple forgot about him. But after reading the allegations from “Liam,” the husband and wife decided that they had a duty as Catholics to speak out, both publicly and in writing to Bishop Conley. They were both anxious not to be seen as slandering anybody, or bringing their diocese into disrepute. But they say the custom of staying silent in the face of clergy problems for the sake of keeping up Lincoln’s image is wrong.
“We don’t want this to happen to someone else,” the wife told me.
Said the husband:
The true point of Peter Mitchell’s article is not to condemn Monsignor Kalin. It’s to say that the church has a real problem that it won’t deal with. It’s all about image. They hide under “for the good of the church.” That’s the problem. That’s what needs to come out.
Finally, I also spoke today to a priest I’ll call “Father Gruff.” He is a former Lincoln seminarian, though he serves as a priest in another diocese. Father Gruff is the second source who knows Danek personally, and says he reached out to Danek after immediately after Father Townsend was sent away for treatment. He told me that Danek would not discuss it with him then, other than to say that Townsend had not been sent away for abusing alcohol. Gruff was informed by other priests of the diocese that Danek had been silenced by the chancery.
Said Gruff, of the thriving conservative diocese’s tendency to lock down all talk of clerical problems:
They have a greater moral standard. That’s what makes Lincoln special. They hold up the morals of the church more than anyone else. That’s why they’re being called to task: their hypocrisy. I think this is prevalent wherever you go in the Church: this code of silence. They’re the big dog of moral standards. In a way, this will hurt, but it needs to be out.
Monsignor Kalin was a legend in the Diocese of Lincoln. This 2004 story from the local newspaper, detailing the elderly priest’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease, gives you an idea of how revered he was. Yet Gruff tells a different story about Kalin — a story of a culture of clandestine homoeroticism and cover-up to preserve the conservative image of the diocese and its beloved Monsignor Kalin.
He entered seminary for Lincoln when Kalin was the vocations director — that is, the official who served as gatekeeper for the seminary. He says that Kalin once gave him a long, intimate body hug that made him “uncomfortable.” He tried to wriggle out of it, but Kalin wouldn’t let go.
“I gave him three strong man-slaps on the back, and said ‘God bless you, Monsignor,’ then pulled away. He was visibly angry at me for that,” says Gruff.
Gruff alleges that there was psychological “manipulation going on from day one. When I was first there I was warned by another seminarian that I should not demean homosexuals when talking to the vocations director, which was Kalin at the time.”
When the subject came up with Kalin, Gruff told the monsignor that gays “were children of God, they have a problem, they need God’s love like everybody else, but they’re doing wrong things.”
This seemed to satisfy Kalin in Gruff’s account. But then, four years into seminary, he was sexually propositioned by an older seminarian who was close to Kalin. Gruff glowered at him, and he backed off. The head man was eventually ordained, and remains a priest.
After that, Kalin tried to push me out. One of his last acts as vocations director was to make sure I was in a seminary where I was under the authority of this priest [the one who had groped him]. I went straight to Bishop Bruskewitz, and told him what happened. I told him that I wanted to go to a different seminary. The bishop let me go to [a different seminary], but told me to be quiet about it, because everything would be handled.
On the up side, Kalin was retired as vocations director shortly after that, and Gruff saw a real change for the better in the priest who had propositioned him. Once this priest’s closeness with Kalin was broken, he improved.
Gruff said the situation in Lincoln today is personal to him. He was close friends in seminary with a fellow seminarian, who was a “good guy.” This priest fell in with Father Townsend and his circle, and began to go on vacations with them. The priest cut off Gruff and his other seminary friends.
“This is one reason I’m worried about Tim Danek,” he says.
The pressure on priests to conform to the system is great, says Gruff.
They play the obedience card, but it’s not holy obedience. They’ll cite saints who had to suffer from unjust superiors, and submitted to it in holy obedience. Padre Pio did that, even though the bishop was wrong. He was obedient, but I don’t know that it was holy.
What are ordinary Catholics supposed to do in all this? For one, pray the rosary, daily. Prayer is the best way to build the spiritual strength to persevere without losing faith. Also, do not despair of the priesthood.
“It’s hard to trust anybody, but there are a lot of good guys who got through, like me,” he says. “We did get through. But it’s hard to know who those guys are. It really is. But there are good guys.”
How can you find trustworthy priests? Look for those who are on the margins:
That’s not an absolute, but it’s a good general rule that the more a priest has been favored by the system, the less trustworthy he is. If there’s a priest who has been favored in his diocese, has a resistance to Marian piety, and doesn’t come from a solidly prayerful Catholic family, watch out. These red flags point to the priests who can corrupt. When looking for a good priest, look for simplicity and a spirit of poverty. I think a spirit of poverty is a very rare thing these days.
I will post more when I receive a response from the Diocese of Lincoln’s lawyers.
I’ll end with this. The Catholic writer Ron Belgau, who leads the “Spiritual Friendship” movement of gay Christians who live celibately, in obedience to Scripture, notes on Facebook that the Diocese of Lincoln was the only diocese in the US to refuse to participate in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ auditing program for the sexual abuse of minors [UPDATE: They relented, and started doing it in 2015.]. He adds:
Exactly so. Conservative Catholics are right to point out the role of secretive, sexually active gay cliques within the Church, and how they advance dysfunction and abuse. This is something that the mainstream media refuses to examine — even after the Cardinal McCarrick revelations (though one hopes that responsible reporters are at long last working on it). But it’s too easy for conservatives to pick out the sizable specks in the eyes of politically correct journalists, while ignoring the log in our own eyes: our blindness to the faults of our own tribe, whose goodness has to be unquestionable.
This is the emerging lesson of Lincoln. It’s not just a lesson for that diocese. Since the McCarrick news broke last month, I’ve been exchanging e-mails with conservative Catholic priests all over the US, who complain that they are sick and tired of bishops who demand priestly silence in the face of the sexual corruption they tolerate.
It’s not just a Catholic lesson, either. It didn’t involve abuse of any kind, but I made the same mistake in Orthodoxy, allowing the clear and undeniable malice of the Other Side blind me to the real faults in the bishop I went to foolish lengths to defend. The Southern Baptist scandal earlier this summer over pastor Paige Patterson’s treatment of sex abuse victims uncovered a powerful culture of self-imposed blindness by allies of a powerful conservative within the denomination.
This is a hard lesson to learn — but we’ve got to do it.
UPDATE: A priest e-mails:
The thing that sticks out to me is the statement from Conley. He confirms that Kalin was a problem of some kind but then throws Mitchell under the bus for making it public. While it is true that Mitchell violated his vows and was laicized, for Conley to include that in his statement is an obvious attempt to embarrass and degrade him for making this information public. It’s absolutely shameful because it says to all priests who have been victimized by other priests or bishops in authority, “Don’t come forward or we will humiliate you!” It is altogether likely that part of Mitchell’s problems as a priest stem from his formation at the hands of Kalin, but even if they don’t, they are irrelevant to the fact that he is bringing them forward. This is another example of why priests don’t speak out and why all victims of abuse don’t speak out.