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Lincoln Diocese Comes Clean On Abuse

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska (EWTN screenshot)

Last summer, in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, Peter Mitchell, a laicized Catholic priest of the Lincoln, Nebraska, diocese, published an essay on this blog in which he alleged that Monsignor Leonard Kalin (d. 2008) had groomed seminarians sexually.  This was a bombshell in the conservative diocese, which prided itself on being a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. Kalin was a legendary figure there. Mitchell, who was laicized following sexual misconduct with women, caught hell for daring to speak out.

But his essay emboldened others to stand up and say #MeToo. One of them was Wan Wei Hsien, a Catholic layman living in Malaysia, who claimed that that Kalin attempted to molest him and others. And then there was the story of the young priest who allegedly caught Kalin protegé Father Charles Townsend in a compromising position with a young male altar server. The diocese sent him off to non-specified treatment, and didn’t tell the parishioners what it was all about. A former parishioner of Father Townsend’s in another Nebraska parish — St. Wenceslaus in Wahoo — came forward with his own story of unwanted sexualized behavior (e.g., following him into the shower at the gym), which I wrote about on this blog. Read about the Townsend allegations here.

Days later, Stan Schulte, a Nebraska chiropractor, came forward to allege that his own uncle, Father Jim Benton, had molested him. It’s a punch to the gut, this story. Schulte also had to deal with blowback from some in the diocese who wished he had kept his mouth shut. From that post from last summer:

Stan Schulte says he personally knows another victim of Father Benton, but that this person is unwilling to come forward at the present time. Schulte alleges that this victim was 14 years old at the time, and it happened when Father Benton was a Lincoln seminarian. Schulte describes the alleged assault, the details of which he asked not be published. It is much like what he says happened to him in his Uncle Jim’s rectory.

According to Schulte, this minor was the first known victim of Uncle Jim. The minor reported it to a priest at the time, but the priest buried the allegation. Says Schulte today, “Had the priest who was told about that reported it at the time, and had the diocese taken action, I wouldn’t have been molested.”

Schulte says that when Father Benton was sent away in 2000, his parish at the time, St. John’s, was told that it was for health issues. This was the same rationale the diocese gave last year to the people of St. Peter’s parish in Lincoln, to explain the sudden disappearance of its pastor, Father Charles Townsend. We now know that Father Townsend had actually been sent for treatment after the assistant pastor, Father Tim Danek, reported him for an incident involving alcohol and inappropriate behavior with a 19-year-old man in the parish.

A chancery culture of deception makes it hard for victims to come forward, says Schulte.

The Schulte story caused others to come forward about Father Benton, and what the diocese, then led by hard-line conservative Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, knew. Read here.

Today, the Lincoln diocese made an announcement about abuse there. Excerpt:

The diocese published the names of nine priests with substantiated allegations of abuse of minors. This list was developed with the assistance of the Task Force based on a review of the diocesan records related to allegations of sexual misconduct. The Task Force specifically recommended that the diocese publish the names of any diocesan clergy with substantiated allegations.

A “substantiated allegation” is an allegation that, after review of available information, appeared more likely true than not in the judgment of the independent Task Force.

Bishop Conley stated that it was important for victims to see these names made public and that the diocese and community at large acknowledge the pain caused by these priests, “To begin, for those innocent victims that have experienced this very dark chapter in our Church and in our diocese, I apologize on behalf of the diocese. I am releasing these names today with the hope that you can finally begin or deepen the process of healing.

“Another reason for publishing the priests’ names and parishes where they served,” he continued, “is that there may be victims who have not yet come forward. They may now be ready to report to law enforcement and to seek victim assistance and healing from the diocese.”

The list includes Fr. Jim Benton, Fr. Charles Townsend, and Msgr Leonard Kalin. Additionally, the diocese says it is conducting further investigation into Kalin, and invites people with information to get in touch.

Remember, the fact that their names are on this list is not an adjudication of criminal guilt. It simply states that after investigation, the diocese finds that it is more likely than not that they are guilty of the allegations against them. Still, this has to feel like vindication for Peter Mitchell, Wan Wei Hsien, Stan Schulte, and others who dared to speak up last summer. Mitchell, whose TAC essay cracked the façade in Lincoln, received a big share of verbal abuse from people there who damned him for his past sins (which cost him his priesthood), and for airing the Catholic Church’s dirty laundry.

Today, though, thanks to his courage, and the courage of those inspired by him, the Bishop of Lincoln said, on behalf of the diocese, that he believes that Mitchell and the others are telling the truth about what these priests did.

That’s huge. I’m a little emotional about this, I’ll be honest with you, because I know what victims and whistleblowers have to go through, and I know what Mitchell, Schulte, and a Catholic whistleblower whose name I’m keeping private went through to tell the truth. I spent an evening on the phone with Stan Schulte, when he told me his story, listening to him sob about what his uncle did to him, and how much he did not want to hurt his family. From that piece last year:

One striking aspect of my intensely emotional interview with Stan Schulte, in which he broke down crying several times, is his repeated expression of love for priests, loyalty to the Catholic Church, and even love for the uncle he says molested him.

“I’ve lived my whole life loving my uncle,” Schulte says, sobbing. “I think he’s a good person, no matter how deep this problem goes. He hasn’t had anyone to help him. He just kept being moved from parish to parish.”

“I feel like my uncle is unable to even get support from fellow priests in regards to his problem because they too are left in the dark and are not able to show compassion or much-needed support. This, I am sure, makes him feel isolated and alone as well.”

Schulte continues, “There are a lot of amazing priests I respect and love, and I fear some of them don’t have a voice, knowing how much potential corruption there may be above them.”

Schulte was a victim, yet he was grieving over the suffering of his alleged abuser, and of the diocese.

The Nebraska Attorney General continues to investigate the Catholic Church in that state. In February, he subpoenaed sex abuse records from 400 Catholic parishes and institutions in Nebraska. 

One more thing: on that Lincoln list released today is Monsignor Clarence Crowley, longtime pastor of the Lincoln cathedral, who died in 1986. Msgr Crowley was a favorite of the late Lincoln Bishop Glennon Flavin, who was the diocesan ordinary from 1965 until his 1992 retirement.

Three sitting bishops today lived and served as priests with Msgr Crowley there at the Lincoln cathedral. They are Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; Bishop Michael Owen Jackels of Dubuque; and Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, Calif.

What, if anything, did they see while in residence at the cathedral? If they saw Msgr Crowley abusing minors, or if they had reason to believe that he was doing so, did they tell anybody? If not, why not? Somebody should ask them.

UPDATE: A reader, Catholic Kansan, accused me of coming close to libel in that last bit above about what these three now-bishops might have known about the alleged abuser Monsignor Crowley. I adamantly object to that, but reader Loudon Is A Fool gets even deeper:

@Catholic Kansan

Why weren’t they asked before any insinuations were made? These kinds of insinuations instantly condemn people without evidence.

What this ignores is that what Rod writes is what any knowledgable person assumes. The insinuation is laying there drunk and naked and flopping around uncovered in front of our faces as we try to avert our eyes.

These priests and Bishops are like darkly comic Sergeant Schultzes. They know nothing! Bishop Vasa is as orthodox as they come, but he went to seminary at Holy Trinity in Dallas in the mid-70s. He was parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ with Hrdlicka (another guy on the list) for two years when Msg. Crowley was pastor there. None of those coincidences are his fault. Who knows why Bishop Flavin installed Msgr. Kalin as director of vocations and was sending guys to Holy Trinity and assigned Bishop Vasa to serve with a bunch of gay dudes. But to assume that an extremely insightful guy like Bishop Vasa didn’t know what was what seems very unlikely. And what is further troubling, following this history of exposure to various clerics sodomitical and finally in a position where he might not feel coerced to feign blindness, as Bishop of Baker Oregon he defended the employment of a Deacon associated with Urrutigoity’s super gay Society of St. John (the same odd group from whence Fr. Christopher Clay once of Arlington fled).

So for the sake of their own reputations these priests need to speak out. They need to pull back the curtain and call out the corruption. Because when they don’t, they look complicit (or worse). The insinuation exists because of the demonic filth they have elected to ignore. Not because Rod asks whether anyone notices an odor.

UPDATE.2: Another reader e-mails:

Thank you for your articles about the Lincoln Diocese!  As a former member of Cathedral, I remember Crowley inviting boys to the rectory. Parents believing Crowley “saw something special in their sons”. “Maybe he’s helping the boys to hear their call to the priesthood”, proudly thought some of them. I know this because it happened in my family, not to me.  It makes me sick.

I agree with you that it would be nice to know which bishops knew about Crowley.  How could Bruskewitz claim that this didn’t happen in Lincoln?  Was he lying?  Seems like it!  It makes no sense that Peter Mitchell, who became a priest in the late 90s (after Crowley died), would know of these claims against Crowley while the Bishops and most of the other Lincoln priests did not.

Lastly, how could they name the parish hall / CHILDREN’S lunch cafeteria after him – Crowley Hall.  Knowing what they knew, in their arrogance, allowed and watched Cathedral parishioners  unknowingly use this hall with his name on it!

UPDATE.3: Peter Mitchell comments:

This story continues to cause pain for so many.

I am grateful that Bishop Conley has acknowledged some aspects of the system of cover-up that was and is systemic in the Lincoln Diocese.

The statement yesterday raises many more questions than it answers. Specifically, when did allegations against these priests first come to the attention of the Diocese of Lincoln, and what steps were taken to address them? This information would help people to understand what happened in terms of the greater scandal of cover-up which is the real issue here (not the lesser scandal of sexual misconduct by individual priests). How can the Church learn from what happened in the past — meaning the cover-up for priests in positions of power over other priests — and reform the seminary and clerical system?

While it is true that in the case of deceased priests there is nothing that can be done now to change what they did, it is imperative that the story of how they were covered-up and protected be known, so that the pattern of abuse of power that continues to be systemic in the Catholic clerical system can be truly changed.

Let’s continue to hope that Bishop Conley will choose to be transparent in sharing information that he is privilege to about how cover-up and blackmail have sadly been a part of the Lincoln Diocese’s clerical system for generations now. He and others who hold power must be very afraid of doing this, so we need to pray for him to have courage.

Let’s also pray for so many priests, good and generous men, who are demoralized and discouraged by all of these revelations. They need our prayers.

We must also pray for priests who may have made mistakes in the past, and who are now very afraid of talking about their issues with anyone in Church authority, because they know well that in the current climate they will lose everything they have. Bishops generally do not relate to priests as spiritual fathers, they relate to them as CEOs with legal counsel sitting next to them, treating every priest in trouble as a legal liability. This truth further contributes to priests feeling alone and not knowing who to trust when they do struggle on a personal level.

The truth of the Catholic faith is as true as it ever was. But the Catholic clerical system, which many people have equated with the Catholic faith, has sadly been corrupted to the core. It needs purifying fire that will free the Church from the grip of the demon of self-protection. Those who are asking for the full truth to be told are those who truly love the Church at this hour of her great trial. It is going to be painful for many good and devout Catholic people, including many good priests, to see the corrupt clerical system fall apart. It is going to be difficult to distinguish the clerical system – which is a man-made institution and tradition – from the Catholic faith that comes from Jesus through the Apostles.

Let’s all keep praying for each other.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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