Breaks Silence on Abuse Cases
By Shirley Ragsdale
Bishop William Franklin of the Davenport Roman Catholic Diocese reported Wednesday on five decades of priest abuse in the diocese and said he will recommend that the Vatican defrock five priests.
In issuing a candid report that names priests and details previous bishops' errors in returning suspected abusers to the ministry, the diocese made an astounding reversal. Recently labeled one of the most uncooperative dioceses in the nation, the Davenport Diocese, on Ash Wednesday's day of repentance, issued a report on priest abuse that went further in scope and candor than any other Iowa diocese.
Wearing a smear of ashes on his forehead, Franklin, who for months had avoided interviews, introduced a report that said the diocese found 65 allegations against 20 priests and two lay workers since 1950. He named several priests still under investigation and apologized for mistakes he and his predecessors made in handling allegations of abuse.
"I am sorry for any pain, agony and suffering caused by any action of any priest you trusted and wanted to trust. . . . I also humbly apologize for any shortcomings and misunderstandings that may have occurred when some of you came forward to report abuse," Franklin read from a letter that was to be sent to every Catholic in the diocese.
Sioux City and Dubuque bishops in the past year have given an account of priests with abuse allegations against them, without naming names. In September, Des Moines Bishop Joseph Charron named three priests he said should be removed from the priesthood. The diocese gave a brief description of the abuse incidents, but did not disclose how those allegations were handled by previous bishops.
Franklin said most of the abuse in the Davenport Diocese occurred in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, although more than half the allegations were reported after 2001--the year the nation's Catholic bishops acknowledged that a priest-abuse scandal first exposed in Boston was affecting the entire country. The 20 accused priests represent about 3 percent of the 600 priests who served the diocese over the past five decades.
Flanked by two members of the diocese board that reviewed allegations against priests and the diocese's lawyer, Franklin said James Janssen, Francis Bass, Richard Poster, Frank Martinez Jr. and William Wiebler should be defrocked.
Janssen and Bass, both 81 and retired, have been named in several of the 13 lawsuits against the diocese. Both have denied the allegations in court papers, and Bass' lawyer said Wednesday that the priest will fight the diocese's effort to have him removed from the ministry. Neither Janssen nor his lawyer could be reached Wednesday.
Poster, 39, recently was sentenced to a year in prison on charges of having child pornography on his computer at the diocese.
However, the diocese had not publicly discussed allegations against Martinez, 54, of Davenport or Wiebler, 76, who was listed as living in a treatment center in Missouri. They could not be located for comment Wednesday.
The report said that in 1986, Martinez "appeared to initiate sexual activity with a minor who fled from him and sought help." The boy and his parents sued Martinez and the diocese. The case was settled out of court, apparently for $22,500. Martinez was placed on a leave of absence in 1987 and has not returned to the diocese.
"It affected our whole family and we don't talk about it still," said the boy's mother, who asked not to be identified.
The incident occurred in Melcher, where Martinez was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, according to some parishioners.
"Everyone in town knows about it, so I'm surprised his name hasn't come up before," said Mary Ann Crowe, a parish member. "He was a young priest and at the time everybody liked him."
Wiebler was the target of several allegations in the 1970s and `80s, the report said. In fact, diocese lawyer Rand Wonio said Janssen, Bass and Weibler together accounted for 39 of 65 allegations against them.
Weibler admitted abuse of several minors, left the diocese in 1985 to become editor of Sacred Heart League publications in Mississippi and then retired in 1991, the report said. In 2002, he was admitted for treatment at a Missouri facility.
"He was eccentric and had a flair for the theatrical with his services, but I never heard of anything like this," Ottumwa resident Mike Ryan said of Wiebler, who was pastor at St. Mary of the Visitation in Ottumwa from 1980 to 1985. "I was the president of the parish council when he came to Ottumwa, but this is news to me."
Bishop Franklin on Wednesday acknowledged his diocese took a long time to report the abuse to the public and parishioners. Diocese officials still haven't thoroughly explained their change in approach, but Franklin said he had been worried that an earlier announcement might have kept other victims from speaking up for fear their claims would be divulged to the public.
The timing of making the announcement on Ash Wednesday was part coincidence and part plan, the bishop said. It took several weeks to finalize the report so "in a certain sense, God said, `Why don't you wait for Ash Wednesday?' ``
A national organization representing victims of clergy abuse was more skeptical.
Releasing the report on the same day as "The Passion of the Christ" opened in local theaters and only days before release of a national report of the scope of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy was timed to limit the diocese's media exposure, according to the executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
"The release date was calculated to minimize the extent of bad headlines," David Clohessy said.
In 2003, Davenport became the most sued of Iowa's four Catholic dioceses and until recently, diocese officials refused to comment on any of the lawsuits other than to confirm them and report when priests were placed on leave. The diocese also denied all allegations in court cases.
In January, it was reported that Davenport was one of only five of 195 dioceses in the nation that did not send to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a 50-year survey of the scope of abuse in the diocese.
Later, the Conference of Catholic Bishops reported that Davenport was the only diocese to turn auditors away. Diocese officials wouldn't let auditors talk to workers without diocese lawyers present.
The diocese is also investigating allegations against four other priests: Theodore Geerts, Louis Telegdy, Martin Diamond and Drake Shafer, the diocese's vicar general.
Additionally, diocesan investigator Jim Sweeney is looking at allegations against two unnamed priests for incidents that occurred in the 1990s.
Since 1950, the diocese has settled two lawsuits for a total of $372,500, paid by insurers. The names of the priests involved have not been released. Franklin has said that the diocese will "strive to resolve pending litigation and claims fairly and honorably."
[Staff writers Erin Jordan and Colleen Krantz contributed to this report.]
[MISTAKES: Diocese lists mistakes it made in one case. Page 4A]
Photo Caption: Photo by Harry Baumert, The Register. Report: Davenport
Bishop William Franklin talks Wednesday about priest abuse cases in the
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