Bishop Accountability
 
  Priest's Records Spark Questions
8 Allege Davenport Clergyman Molested Them As Boys

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
February 15, 2004

In 1987, James Wells of Davenport wrote a difficult letter to the man who was his uncle, priest and namesake.

Wells, then 38, asked the Rev. James Janssen to help pay for therapy to treat his depression. Wells' psychologist believed the depression was connected to "sexual abuse I was subjected to by you while I was a child," Wells wrote to the man who he contends abused him from ages 5 to 14.

Two days later, the priest's attorney wrote back: Janssen was shocked by and denied Wells' allegations. Moreover, the lawyer suggested, Janssen would sue him for slander if Wells pursued the allegations. A similar letter was sent to Wells' mother -Janssen's sister.

This and more is detailed in lawsuits against Janssen and the Roman Catholic Davenport Diocese. The priest has been named by eight men who allege in separate lawsuits that he molested them as boys.

Janssen, who served at 13 parishes between 1948 and 1990, is now retired and living at St. Vincent's Center in Davenport, a diocese retirement home. He steadfastly denies the allegations. In court papers, the diocese has always denied the allegations.

A year after he wrote to Janssen, Wells met with Monsignor Michael Morrissey, vicar general of the Davenport Diocese. Wells asked the diocese to investigate Janssen, although he had difficulty articulating his reasons.

Wells' mother later wrote to Morrissey, asking for a progress report. Morrissey replied that he wasn't really sure "what investigation I will make. . . . However, if you are looking for something specific, I would like to know what that is so I can follow up on it."

New documents in the lawsuit suggest that Morrissey's apparent confusion was disingenuous and that diocese officials may have been well aware of molestation complaints against Janssen.

A court document on Feb. 9 last week quotes the diocese as saying records of Janssen's leave of absence from Nov. 13, 1956, to June 19, 1958, "could be interpreted" as resulting from claims of inappropriate sexual contact with others.

Furthermore, the diocese now acknowledges that church officials received several complaints that could be interpreted as being about Janssen's alleged improper sexual contact with minors "before Jan. 1, 1955," and "before Jan. 1, 1960."

However, the diocese holds that the record is "not definitive" and that everyone with firsthand knowledge of the complaints is dead.

The diocese has denied allegations in court papers and generally declined to comment on the lawsuits. It is one of a few dioceses in the country that did not send a summary of priest abuse over the past 50 years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, diocese officials say they soon will make public the scope of abuse in the diocese.

Janssen served in 13 Davenport parishes in his 42 years in ministry. Lawsuits filed in the past year map a trail of alleged victims as the diocese moved him from parish to parish.

The plaintiffs claim they were abused when Janssen was assigned to St. Joseph's Parish in Fort Madison from 1961 to 1967, St. Joseph's Parish at Sugar Creek from 1967 to 1979, and Sts. Philip and James Parish at Grand Mound from 1980 to 1990.

Advocates Speculate

Victims' advocates speculate there may be dozens more alleged victims.

"The only prudent assumption is that where five or 10 have found the strength and courage to come forward, there may well be three or four times as many who haven't," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Janssen served a long time, moved frequently and served in a rural diocese. It is harder for people to come forward with allegations in small towns. And many of these accused priests served in the `50s through `80s, when people didn't talk about such things."

In a sworn affidavit, Wells claims Janssen molested him the first time on Thanksgiving Day 1953. Wells was 5.

After dinner at the Wells family home near Chicago in LaGrange Park, Ill., Janssen allegedly took the boy with him to take a nap and sexually abused him. Afterward, the priest allegedly told the boy that "it was our secret."

Wells said in court papers that he has suffered from mental illness since he was a child. He developed various psychological coping mechanisms and symptoms of psychological distress, he said. He sees a psychiatrist and takes daily medication for his mental illness.

When the Wells family was living near Chicago, the abuse allegedly occurred six to eight times a year. Wells said it escalated after the family moved to Davenport.

In court papers, he offers a sad litany of the priest's alleged sexual contact with other boys.

Wells said he was taken with other children to a cabin on the Mississippi River where Janssen allegedly encouraged the boys to swim naked while he fondled them.

"One boy, after the first night of a two-night weekend stay, got up and was upset," Wells states in his lawsuit. "He said he was sick and demanded that he be taken home."

Janssen is also said to have taken Wells and other students swimming at a private pool in Davenport where he allegedly molested them.

When Janssen was assigned to St. Joseph's Parish in Fort Madison, he and another priest, the Rev. Theodore Anthony Geerts, then pastor of St. Boniface's Parish in Farmington, allegedly held nude "card parties." Wells said that he and other boys attended the events.

Geerts had no diocesan assignments after he left Farmington in 1969. In court documents he is listed as absent on leave from 1971 to 1986. A default judgment was granted against Geerts in one of the sexual abuse lawsuits on Dec. 8, last year.

In the summer of 1962, when Wells was 14, he traveled to Daytona Beach, Fla., with Janssen and other boys. Wells alleges that he and another boy were abused by Janssen on the trip. The priest "took turns, taking me and another child from Fort Madison to the room alone," Wells said.

During the trip, a "Father Murphy" was picked up and Janssen offered Wells to this priest, Wells alleges.

"Since I had never been abused by anyone but my uncle, I refused," Wells stated. After that Janssen never abused him again, he said.

Mary Vineyard of Davenport remembers Janssen and the Rev. Francis Bass as being "great friends" when Janssen was assigned to St. Mary's Parish from 1959 to 1961. Bass was pastor at St. Joseph's Parish, also in Davenport. He has been named in four sexual abuse lawsuits and has denied the allegations in court records.

"The priests were great friends with the boys, too," said Vineyard, a teenager at the time.

Vineyard dated one of the boys in the mostly Hispanic group that hung around with the priests. From them, she heard that Janssen allegedly took boys to a cabin on the Mississippi River for overnight stays and trips to Chicago.

"These guys all hung out together, and they acted pretty macho," Vineyard said. "Janssen's nickname was `Father Jazz..' ``

What her then-boyfriend told her about Janssen and Bass is very close to what is being alleged in the lawsuits, Vineyard said in an interview.

Several John Does

Davenport lawyer Craig Levien represents several John Does.

They are anonymous plaintiffs who allege Janssen abused them as children. Three of the men -John Doe III, John Doe IV and John Doe VI -claim they were abused between 1961 and 1967 while Janssen was their priest at St. Joseph's Church in Fort Madison.

Another two -John Doe and John Doe II -say they were altar boys at St. Joseph's Parish in Sugar Creek, where Janssen was pastor until 1979. They allege that the abuse started in 1967, after he arrived.

Levien filed the first of his 10 lawsuits in May 2003. As soon as the story about the first John Doe's lawsuit against Janssen hit the newspapers, Levien said, other victims began to contact him.

"Some were dissatisfied with their contact with the diocese and the response they received," Levien said. "Some thought they were the only ones it happened to, and they called to offer support to others. I believe some people will be witnesses "

On Nov. 26, Clinton County District Judge C.H. Pelton ordered the Davenport Diocese to turn over 50 years of its records to Levien. The judge's order is rare, perhaps only the second in the country in priest abuse litigation.

Although diocese officials appealed Pelton's ruling, they also began combing through hundreds of clergy personnel files, according to diocese attorney Rand Wonio. In the process, they found an old safe in the chancery basement, Wonio said in court records.

When the officials opened the safe, they discovered documents about Janssen, according to court records. The diocese has not said whether those records verify any of the eight men's allegations, which are eerily similar to each other's.

Two plaintiffs corroborate James Wells' story about the trip to Daytona. Another mentions the nude card parties. Another said he went to the cabin on the Mississippi. Four allege that Janssen encouraged them to shoplift. At least two claim they were given alcohol.

In court documents, Janssen denies having any sexual conduct with the first John Doe, but he acknowledges spending time with the boy, including taking out-of-state trips with him over the years.

Sent for 'Counseling'

Donald Green is a lifelong member of Sts. Philip and James Parish in Grand Mound -Janssen's last parish assignment. Green still attends church there.

In 1996, Green reported to the Davenport Diocese that he had been sexually abused by Janssen beginning in 1982. He met with Bishop William Franklin and staff members. At the Green family's request, the diocese sent Janssen, who retired in 1990, for "counseling." In addition, Franklin ordered Janssen to cease any public activity of a church nature.

It wasn't until 2003, when lawsuits began to name Janssen, that Green realized he wasn't the only one.

Green said he decided in November to sue Janssen and the diocese. He said it wasn't about the money; his lawsuit was about holding the church, the diocese and the priest accountable.

Clarence Kinney of Grand Mound was a trustee at Sts. Philip and James Church at the time Janssen was pastor. The lives of Clarence, now 80, his wife, Grace, and their 15 children still revolve around the church. Janssen is pictured in photographs taken at family milestones--confirmations, weddings and anniversaries. He appears in a photo of the Kinneys' 50th wedding anniversary.

He will not be welcome when the couple celebrate their 60th anniversary in May at the church.

Like others in the congregation, the Kinneys weren't aware of Janssen's problem until lawsuits were filed in 2003.

"I would not have been a trustee, if I had known," Clarence Kinney said. "I would have been the first to do something about it."

Leave of Absence

In 1990, then Bishop Gerald O'Keefe placed Janssen on indefinite leave of absence, according to a recent letter from Bishop Franklin to the Grand Mound Parish council. O'Keefe was bishop of the Davenport Diocese from 1966 to 1993. His predecessor was Bishop Ralph Leo Hayes. O'Keefe and Hayes are deceased.

It was in 1990 that James Wells and his mother reported Janssen's alleged sexual misconduct to another priest, according to Wells' lawsuit.

Franklin has said that he was not aware of a sexual abuse problem in the diocese when he became bishop in 1994.

Levien maintains that diocese records will help him prove a pattern of negligence by Davenport bishops -of failing to act on reports of abuse and instead moving allegedly abusive priests from parish to parish. In Janssen's case, church officials' failure allowed child after child to suffer, the lawsuits contend.

This month, Davenport Diocese officials have been engaged in a flurry of activity to publicly address abuse allegations. One of the diocese's proposals is to set up support groups for abuse victims.

Levien said he doesn't believe his clients will be interested.

"These people don't want to go anywhere around a church," he said. "Their first sexual experience was with a priest. They have no trust and no faith in the church because it robbed them of their innocence and youth."

In his sworn statement, Wells offers an insight into that emotion.

Janssen often told Wells' parents he was taking him "for a treat" and then would park on an isolated dirt road where he would fondle the boy and himself, according to the affidavit.

"He would wear his collar while we were parked," Wells states. "Once a police officer stopped and asked what was going on.

"My uncle responded that he was a priest and he was hearing my confession."

[Photo captions: : THE ACCUSED PRIEST: The Rev. James Janssen has been accused in lawsuits of fondling boys, holding nude `card parties' and supplying alcohol.

ONE ALLEGED VICTIM: James Wells, shown at left as a child, alleges that he was abused multiple times by Janssen and developed mental illness as a result.]

 
 

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