I Told Church 6 Times
A Des Moines Man Says He Tried to Warn the Davenport Diocese about a Priest's Alleged Attempt to Molest Him
By Shirley Ragsdale
A Des Moines man told a Clinton County judge last month that he tried six times over four decades to report a Davenport Diocese priest's attempt to molest him.
But the Davenport Diocese's only record of Ed Thomas' complaint is a 1992 memo in which the diocese's vicar general noted that the priest, Rev. Francis Bass, was retiring in four months.
"I believe no action needs to be taken, but this memo should be sealed and put in Father Bass's file," Monsignor Michael Morrissey wrote to Bishop Gerald Francis O'Keefe. "If something else comes up, I don't think we can deny this telephone call."
Thomas, a health and physical education consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, is not suing anyone, but he testified at a hearing in another abuse lawsuit last month. He said Bass tried to molest him on an overnight trip in 1960, but he got away. Thomas said he reported the incident in 1960; in 1974; twice in 1992, including a call to the bishop's home; in 2001; and in 2002.
After winning a rare ruling ordering the diocese to turn over all its records on sexual abuse complaints, a lawyer for several plaintiffs used Thomas' testimony to argue that Clinton County District Court Judge C. H. Pelton should require the diocese to turn over to him the names of people who complained.
Craig Levein said diocese records are not complete; a better way to assess the extent of sexual abuse would be to contact victims, he contends.
So far, the diocese has turned over to Levein files on three priests, but the diocese is appealing Pelton's order and is adamant that blacking out the victims' names in the records is critical to protecting their privacy.
"We have had a number of people contact the diocese reporting abuse who simply want to make the report and be reassured the involved priest no longer is in contact with children," diocese lawyer Rand Wonio said. "Our victims coordinator has been contacted by people seeking help but who wish to remain anonymous. These people have privacy rights."
Pelton has not ruled on Levein's request. Bass, through his lawyer, has denied allegations and is contesting the diocese's attempts to remove him from the priesthood.
In an interview, Thomas said he's incensed that the only time the diocese apparently paid any attention to his repeated warnings, its officials got his story wrong.
"The memo said the attempted abuse happened in 1964, but it was 1960," he said. "It said Bass put his hand down my pants. That was wrong. It said that I objected and that was the end of it. That was wrong, too. The memo's implication was there was no need to take action."
Thomas said he got into trouble with the law as a teenager in Davenport. As part of his probation, a judge ordered him to start attending church again. Bass contacted Thomas' mother to assure her he would guide Thomas "back to a moral life."
He said the priest took Thomas and other boys on various trips and outings, including swimming at night at St. Ambrose College.
"I had a feeling that something wrong was going on, even when he would get within arm's distance," Thomas said. "I watched things happen, kids going into the bedroom, and I felt it wasn't right. He got us out of our pants once at Saint Ambrose, but I avoided the guy."
Thomas said that when he was about 14, Bass took a group of boys for a weekend in Chicago. They stayed at the home of one of Bass' relatives.
Most of the boys were told to sleep downstairs, but at bedtime Bass called Thomas to his upstairs bedroom where the priest heard his confession and told the boy they would sleep together. Not long after lights out, Bass made his move, Thomas said.
"Bass was strong, but when he came down and grabbed me, I was out of there in a heartbeat," Thomas said. "I used a sharp elbow."
Thomas scampered downstairs where he remembers spending the night plotting Bass' death and wondering "how much trouble I would be in if I killed" him.
When Thomas returned home, he told people what happened to him. His mother told him to stay away from the priest. At Davenport's Saint Mary's Catholic Church rectory, he told one of the priests, who told him he was wrong.
In 1974, he called the Davenport diocese and reported what had happened to him. He said the person he spoke to didn't seem interested.
In June 1992, Thomas was a professor at Northern Illinois University and saw a Larry King TV show about priests abusing children. He called Bishop O'Keefe's residence but did not get to speak to the bishop. He doesn't know who answered the phone, but he told that person what happened in 1960. A week later, he called the diocese and spoke to Msgr. Morrissey.
In 2001, Thomas returned to Iowa and called the diocese again. "I was shifted to a couple of unresponsive people but finally spoke to someone who apologized and assured me Bass would not be around children," he said.
In 2002, Thomas said he spoke to Msgr. Drake Shafer, the diocese's vicar general. He told Shafer about his experience and also urged the diocese to prepare students in Catholic schools to deal with molesters. Shafer expressed interest and later the superintendent of Davenport Diocese Catholic schools contacted him about a self-defense curriculum.
Shafer also has been accused of abuse in a lawsuit and is on leave until the case is resolved.
Wonio said it's difficult to determine whether Thomas' early reports were acted upon.
"I don't think anybody around in the diocese today knows what they did or didn't do, who they talked to back then," Wonio said. "There is no reference in the record about earlier telephone contact with Thomas. Thomas doesn't remember the person who took the 1974 report or precisely what he told them. The bishop at the time was O'Keefe, and he's been dead since April 12, 2000."
Thomas wants people to know he was motivated to protect children, but admits the incident has preyed on his mind his entire life.
"The experience was a terrible gauntlet for me to run," Thomas
said. "But the end is positive for me, because I escaped and I learned
to separate the spiritual from the people who pretend to own it."
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