Bishop Accountability
  Rev. James Janssen – Records Reveal a Life on the Move

By Todd Ruger
Quad-City Times
February 26, 2004

A black-and-white photo from the late 1950s shows two brothers standing in the arms of the Rev. James Janssen, their uncle and a Catholic priest, at their family home in Davenport.

It recalls a time of youthful innocence, of Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett costumes and unquestioning respect for men of the cloth.

It was less than two years after a bishop placed Janssen on indefinite leave from a Newton, Iowa, church for apparent sexual misconduct.

And it was a time when sexual misconduct and pedophilia were viewed as a spiritual matter, allowing Janssen to be cleared to serve other churches for 32 more years, the Catholic Diocese of Davenport said.

More than 33 years after that photograph was taken, a psychologist connected depression suffered by the nephew pictured to Janssen’s right, his namesake, James Wells, to nine years of sexual abuse by Janssen, Wells said in court documents.

“It is haunting and powerful to see images of the victims at the ages they were abused,” said Patty Tierney of California, a sister of Wells’ who dated the photograph at about 1957 or 1958.

Information from diocese reports on sexual abuse allegations and court documents compiled by the Quad-City Times sheds light on how reports of improper sexual contact intertwined with the careers of Janssen and at least two other priests accused of sexual misconduct.

All three priests — Janssen, the Rev. Francis Bass and the Rev. Theodore Geerts — have denied the allegations in court documents.

Janssen could not be reached for comment by the Quad-City Times, and his attorney did not respond to interview requests for this article. Janssen is named as a defendant in eight lawsuits against him and the diocese. That is the most of any priest in the Davenport Diocese.

The first lawsuit filed against Janssen by someone not identified simply as “John Doe” came from Wells.

Janssen’s Career Begins

Janssen was born in Davenport, baptized, took his first Communion and was confirmed at St. Anthony’s Parish, according to a biographical entry about him in a book published for that church’s 150th anniversary in 1987 and articles in the Catholic Messenger, the official diocese newspaper.

He attended the old St. Anthony School and, after attending St. Ambrose University and completing seminary studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, recited his first Mass at St. Anthony’s in 1948. He also served as priest there in 1979 and 1980.

It was after Thanksgiving dinner in 1953 when Janssen took a nap with 5-year-old James Wells, molesting him and telling him it was “our secret,” according to an affidavit Wells filed as part of his civil court case.

That was the beginning of nine years of abuse, Wells said.

1956-1959: Janssen’s First Suspension

Janssen became the assistant pastor at Sacred Heart in Newton in 1953, but he was suspended and placed on indefinite leave by Bishop Ralph Hayes in November 1956 for apparent sexual misconduct, the diocese reported.

In August 1957, a Loyola University doctor wrote to Hayes and advised him that, after undergoing psychotherapy there, Janssen “can become a very understanding and acceptable pastor ... not likely to fall into past errors,” according to the diocese.

Hayes assigned Janssen to serve as substitute pastor at a Holbrook church in June 1958, but he received a report from a church three months later that Janssen had been involved in sexual misconduct, the diocese reported.

The bishop again suspended Janssen, who went to an abbey, but Hayes received a favorable report saying that Janssen had made sufficient progress to warrant recall, according to the diocese.

Hayes appointed Janssen temporary administrator of St. Patrick Church in Delmar and, in June 1959, as assistant pastor at St. Mary Church in Davenport, the diocese reported.

The causes and treatment of pedophilia were little understood, and, regrettably, a procedure of returning priests to ministry after treatment, counseling or recommendations by mental health professionals was followed in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the diocese.

There were no specific reports of sexual misconduct by Janssen at St. Mary’s, but there were complaints from parents about inappropriate behavior by Janssen involving boys, the report states.

It was during this time that Janssen abused Wells six to eight times per year and more often after the youngster’s family moved to Davenport in 1958, Wells said in his affidavit.

1961-1990: Five Parishes, Abuse Allegations at Three

The diocese reported that it received no allegations of sexual abuse against Janssen from 1961 to 1988.

Allegations were made against Janssen in 1988, and an investigation by the diocese uncovered credible allegations of sexual misconduct while he was serving at Fort Madison, Sugar Creek and Grand Mound from 1961 to 1990, the diocese reported.

Eight lawsuits allege numerous instances of sexual abuse by Janssen against the plaintiffs when they were minors at those churches.

Meanwhile, Wells sent a letter to Janssen in February 1987, asking him to pay for the treatment of his diagnosis of depression due to the sexual abuse, court records show. Wells said in court records that he has undergone counseling since that letter was sent.

A response letter sent that month by Davenport attorney Edward Wehr, who represents Janssen today, threatened to sue Wells for damage to Janssen’s reputation, court records show.

Despite asking the Diocese of Davenport to conduct an investigation and advise him of complaints about his uncle’s sexual abuse in 1988, the diocese concealed any knowledge of complaints from him, Wells said.

1990: Janssen’s Second and Final Suspension

Janssen was placed on indefinite leave by Bishop Gerald O’Keefe in August 1990 because of those accusations, diocese attorney Rand Wonio said at a news conference Wednesday.

The Aug. 23, 1990, edition of the Catholic Messenger contains an article that says Janssen, then 67 and pastor of Saints Philip and James parish in Grand Mound, “has been placed on leave for health reasons.”

Janssen retired in November 1991.

Bishop William E. Franklin, installed in 1993, wrote a letter to him and other diocese priests in 1996 that said Janssen was not to perform any public priestly duties, Wonio said.

On Wednesday, Franklin apologized to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests.

“From the perspective of today, it was clearly a mistake for Father Janssen to have been reassigned to any public ministry after his 1956 suspension,” a diocese report said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.