Confronting Clergy Abuse
By Jill Callison
Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, SD)
April 14, 2002
For almost 20 years, Robert Koenig was silent about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his parish priest in Fairfax in Gregory County.
Kurt Brick struggled for nearly two decades before seeking help for the trauma he says was caused by a priest's sexual abuse while he was a student at O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls.
In the 1990s, both men sued their respective dioceses in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, seeking to call attention to the problems of the past and what one family says was slow response by church officials.
Both men agreed to settlements, with the financial details sealed.
Now, as the Roman Catholic Church nationwide copes with a firestorm of sexual-abuse allegations, the bishops of the two South Dakota dioceses say they have policies in place both to assist victims of past abuse and to help prevent such cases in the future.
Sioux Falls Bishop Robert Carlson said in a letter to the Argus Leader last week that he has invited the South Dakota Attorney General's Office to review his handling of cases in his East River diocese, which includes 152 parishes.
.In the letterr, Carlson said that to his knowledge, no pedophile is serving in any of the offices, ministries or parishes in the diocese.
As part of the Brick settlement and again in his letter to the Argus Leader, Carlson offered an apology to victims of abuse.
"It's my responsibility to apologize on behalf of the church," Carlson said in an interview in March. "I think it's the least that the Lord would expect of me."
An Argus Leader letter to Carlson on April 2 requested an accounting of all abuse reports handled in the diocese during the past 40 years and the outcome of the complaints. Among the questions asked: How many were substantiated? How many clergy were "removed" as a result? Did any of the instances involve nuns?
In his written response, Carlson said the diocese had no central file of abuse allegations going back over its 100-plus years of operation. He acknowledged the civil suit involving William Neuroth, the priest accused by Brick, as the only -abuse lawsuit since he arrived in the diocese in 1994.
In a follow-up interview, Chancellor Jerry Klein said, "I don't want to leave the impression that Neuroth is the only priest we've dealt with. It's not limited to the Neuroth case. But all this attention on the priests as though they're the only ones, that's unfair."
Both Neuroth and the man Koenig accused, William Lambert, no longer work as priests. Lambert admitted in a court deposition that he had raped and molested Koenig. According to depositions in the Brick case, Neuroth said that he did not believe his relationship with Brick was abusive, and Neuroth told Carlson he did not abuse Brick .
Carlson's letter states the diocese was represented by its insurers in the case sand says no funds designated for ministry were usedr in the settlement.
The Rapid City diocese settled Koenig's case and one other involving Lambert in the 1990s. Last month, a Nebraska man filed a new lawsuit naming the Rapid City Diocese and a West River home for boys, alleging that a priest, who has since died, sexually assaulted him from 1975 to 1978 and kidnapped him.
Both Carlson and Rapid City Bishop Blase Cupich have made statements condemning abuse by clergy.
Carlson regularly asks anyone who has been abused in any way by the Catholic Church to come forward to receive pastoral care. In his letter, he wrote, "Sexual abuse of children by bishops, priests and church workers runs counter to everything Jesus stands for."
In a statement from Cupich's office, the Rapid City bishop wrote: "We condemn sexual abuse anywhere and we offer heartfelt sympathy to victims. We are committed to the protection of children."
Growing national concern
Clergy abuse has commanded national attention in recent months, sparked by revelations about ex-priest and convicted sex abuser John Geoghan in Boston. After acknowledging that Geoghan had been transferred to another parish following allegations of abuse, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law turned over records involving 80 additional priests to law enforcement officials.
Since then, more allegations have surfaced across the nation. At least two Wisconsin dioceses have suspended priests pending investigations; an abuse claim is under investigation in Omaha. In New York City and Cleveland, bishops have given priests' personnel records to law enforcement officials to reviews.
The issue has drawn increasing attention since the first major national case surfaced in 1984, when civil and criminal charges were filed against a Louisiana priest who admitted molesting 11 boys and victimizing dozens more.
One lawyer for victims estimates that at least 1,500 U.S. priests have faced public accusations in the past 18 years. The United States has an estimated 47,000 priests.
In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took its first major collective action, endorsing principles for handling such cases. Those include prompt response to any allegations, relieving the accused of ministerial duties, providing medical treatment if evidence supports the allegations, following civil law in reporting complaints, reaching out to victims and their families, and dealing openly with the community while maintaining respect for the privacy of those involved.
Individual bishops are not obligated to follow the guidelines, and policies vary from diocese to diocese.
After the newest wave of allegations, the conference reaffirmed those 1992 principles. In a statement March 14, the bishops added sexual abuse to the agenda for a June meeting in Dallas, charging a committee to recommend a "comprehensive response on the national level" to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
Child sexual abuse by the clergy is not new, nor is it confined to one religion. Numbers also don't demonstrate that the problem is broader in the priesthood than in society at large.
It is an ecumenical problem, said Mark Laaser, who was a pastor with the United Church of Christ when what he calls "a brokenness in my spirit" led him to seek help for a sex addiction involving women.
In May, an article in Christianity Today said roughly a third of all clergy struggle with pornography, said Laaser, who now serves with the Minnesota-based Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute.
In a 1988 survey, about 8 percent of the clergy questioned said they'd had sex with a member of their congregation.
Laaser led a workshop for priests in the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls about 10 years ago.
"I think the Sioux Falls Diocese was way ahead of the game compared to a lot of other dioceses," he said.
The Missouri River that splits the state also is the dividing line for the two South Dakota Catholic dioceses. About a quarter of the state's population is Catholic.
The Rapid City Diocese has had a sexual-misconduct policy in place since 1993. In his statement, Cupich said that a charge of sexual abuse against a child will result in an investigation by the church and "immediate reporting to government authorities as state law requires."
The Sioux Falls Diocese established its first sexual-misconduct policy in the late 1980s and updated it in 1993. The policy lists the applicable state laws and covers investigation of reported incidents. It requires priests, nuns, deacons and employees of the diocese, its parishes, schools and agencies to fill out a background questionnaire concerning sexual abuse.
If a person who is part of the Sioux Falls Diocese is accused of sexual abuse, the policy does what it can to limit access to other vulnerable people, saids Klein, diocese chancellor. The Sioux Falls Diocese would always report any criminal situation it discovers, he saids.
"Do we have a perfect policy? Who knows?" Carlson said during the March interviewh. "But my goal is, 40 years from now, there will not be issues from my time that have to be dealt with."
Klein said the bishop's request to the attorney general to review the handling of abuse reports, which was made last week, is not the first time the diocese has sought the state's review of its actions.
"We've had a situation in the past, for example, where someone suggested to us we didn't handle an estate correctly," Klein saids. Because of problems in other dioceses, Carlson wants to make sure that things have been handled properly, he saids.
Deputy Attorney General Kevin Thom said his office is reviewing the letter and soon will determine what course of action to take.
Allegations from Brick and Koenig both fell outside South Dakota's statute of limitations for criminal action, should investigators have found reason for charges.
Bob Grandpre of the state Division of Criminal Investigation said that for criminal charges to be filed, a victim has until he or she turns 25 years old or seven years from the commission of the crime.
In South Dakota, a civil action for damages from childhood sexual abuse must be filed within three years of the act or three years after the victim discovers his or her injury or condition was caused by such abuse.
South Dakota does not require members of the clergy to report suspected abuse to law enforcement officials. The state does require such reports from those working in health care, mental health, social work, education, child care and law enforcement.
Twelve states specifically require clergy to report suspected abuse, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a federal agency. Several of those states exempt information learned during confession or spiritual counseling.
An additional 16 states have laws saying in broad terms that anyone with knowledge of abuse should report it.
Handling reports of abuse is difficult, church officials acknowledge. Carlson saids in his letter that actions taken in such cases during the 1960s, '70s and '80s were influenced by the belief of many psychologists that such abusers could be treated.
"Today we know that treatment sometimes fails," Carlson wrote.
The Rev. Kevin O'Dell, a former educator and counselor who was ordained in the Sioux Falls Diocese 18 months ago, acknowledged that unhappiness exists in the aftermath of the Brick caseh.
"I would not ever say there have not been individual situations where somebody feels they were not addressed appropriately," he saids.
"The only thing I can say is, as a church, we're sorry for that happening. We try to make up for that. We try to ask for forgiveness and try to move on so it doesn't happen in the future."
During his 32 years in the priesthood, the issue of sexual abuse has always been present, Carlson saids.
He spoke about it last month when he addressed young people, their parents and others at Masses in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen.
"I speak on behalf of the priests gathered here when I say that our hearts break when we hear the reports of child sexual abuse," he said. "We are deeply saddened that the priestly ministry that we embody is betrayed by a few."
The Rev. Greg Tschakert, now in Aberdeen, was serving in the chancery in Sioux Falls in the 1990s when Brick's allegations against Neuroth led to the priest's removal from the Flandreau parish under diocesan policy. That action is automatically taken without the determination of guilt or innocence.
"We went to Flandreau and called an open meeting and told the people what we knew and asked if there was any other evidence," he saids. "We went to his former parish at Canton and asked the same thing. There was no attempt at a cover-up."
In his deposition in the Brick case, Carlson also recalled sending two priests to the Flandreau and Canton parishes "to share with them the fact that we had received an unsubstantiated allegation and to tell the people that and to invite anyone to come forward who might have a complaint against Father Neuroth." Answering a follow-up question, Carlson said those meetings produced no additional complaints in either parish.
Neuroth, who now lives in Beresford and is no longer a Catholic priest, declined to be interviewed for this story..
Brick himself is forbidden by the 1999 settlement to criticize Carlson or former bishops. But in an interview last week, family members said that church officials were aware of their concerns about Neuroth for two decades and did little in response.
During that time, her brother was "falling apart at the seams," saids Karn Barth of Sioux Falls.
The depositions indicate that some steps were taken. Neuroth acknowledges being sent for psychological testing in the mid-1970s before being reassigned from O'Gorman. Both Carlson and Neuroth's depositions make reference to a 1981 letter from former Bishop Paul Dudley, which apparently followed a complaint about a telephone call Neuroth made to Brick that year.
Neuroth remained an active pastor until 1994, when Brick's lawyers wrote the diocese with more specific allegations.
Although for years Kurt Brick thought he was the only one who had been molested by Neuroth, he saids he now believes there were at least three others. Brick saids one of the three has committed suicide. Another wrote a letter to Brick's lawyer, offering to testify in Brick's lawsuit.
The Neuroth and Carlson depositions refer to two men whose names were given to the diocese by Neuroth. Brick's lawyer, Rick Johnson, asked Carlson if he had names "that perhaps these people would have similar complaints to those of Mr. Brick against the diocese?"
Carlson answered "yes" and "two."
Asked how he had handled that information, Carlson said he had asked a psychologist for advice on "what would be the best way to approach someone who may have been abused." The psychologist advised that a telephone call "would be very traumatic."
"What the psychologist recommended was that I would write a letter to them stating that I was conducting an investigation concerning William Neuroth and to invite them to respond," the bishop said. "That's what I did do."
He then stated one letter was returned because the address was wrong; the second brought no response.
Stephanie Pochop saids her law firm, Johnson, Eklund, Nicholson & Peterson, has worked with "well over 100 people" who were the victims of childhood abuse by a trusted adult in their lives.
She has seen the damage that can be done by that person, whether a parent, clergy, coach, teacher or baby sitter.
Some abusers " can manipulate people into believing that everything that happens is their own fault," Pochop said, referring to Robert Koenig's case.
When Koenig was a boy in Fairfax, the priest who led his Catholic parish was as close to God as a youngster could get.
That attitude was true for many older parishioners, too. Koenig knew that if he went to his parents and told them about the things the parish priest was doing to him, they wouldn't have believed him.
So Koenig told no one for years. That's the case with many of the alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests that have come forward in recent weeks, he says.
Koenig, now of Sioux Falls, was abused for 17 years by Lambert. Koenig saids the sexual abuse began in 1958, when Lambert was assigned as his parish priest. Lambert admitted in a deposition given in the case that his first sexual contact with Koenig was a rape.
"It usually takes years and years to get to the point, to say, 'I didn't cause this. I was the victim,' " Pochop saids.
That is true of Koenig, who said that while the abuse ended in 1975, he didn't face it until 1990, when he was in therapy.
In a deposition, Lambert admitted to his sexual abuse of Koenig and said he told at least five other priests about it.
The priest said he would take Koenig to confession after the abuse and also make his own confession to a priest.
Chancellor Margaret Simonson of the Rapid City Diocese said that today, Lambert is fully retired, lives out of state, has no pastoral responsibilities and cannot function as a priest. He would be almost 80 years old.
Koenig saids that his parents refused to acknowledge any misbehavior on Lambert's part, even when the priest brought him home drunk.
After years of estrangement, Koenig reconciled with his mother. For the first time, she shared her own guilt.
"Your dad and I were really naive," she told Koenig, "but that's how we were raised. We didn't know any better. But we should have known."
Koenig still feels resentment toward church officialsm.
"I felt so betrayed by the Catholic Church," he said. "The bishop was standing in Fairfax, South Dakota, allowing them to drag me through the mud."
Koenig saids that others were abused by Lambert and that he was contacted by some after his lawsuit was filed.
Koenig's lawsuit wound through the courts for many years. At one point, he won a jury award from Lambert, but the Rapid City Diocese was cleared of wrongdoing.
Eventually, the South Dakota Supreme Court appointed an arbitrator in Koenig's case. It was settled with both sides agreeing to keep the details sealed.
Legal issues sometimes make it difficult for either side to move toward reconciliation, said Laaser of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute.
"Any inclinations we would have to be reconciling, healing and so forth, owning our own responsibilities, it's been somewhat impaired by the judicial system," he said. "We're all kind of running scared of the legal consequences of things."
Laaser was serving a church part time and counseling full time when his sexual abuse was uncovered. He says the boundary he crossed came primarily with women in his counseling practice, not church members.
"My identity was that of a pastoral counselor, but the offending behavior was really more the therapist," he saids. "I don't know which is worst. They're both terrible, but I think being a pastor makes it more egregious. It creates spiritual damage, not just emotional."
Laaser said he had been sexually abused by a pastor, but he never blames his own victimization for what he did.
"I do know that in terms of my own healing, I had to go back and see what was done to me and heal that," he saids. "I had to see, geez, if this was the damage for me, think of what I turned around and created."
Part of his healing, Laaser saids, is being open about his own story, and one way he can give back to his victims is by helping others.
Brick sought an apology; Koenig sought to shine a bright light on the church.
"This was never about money to me," he said. "This was about holding them accountable - and to expose them. It was not an easy thing, but I'm glad I did. I helped other people."
Filing the lawsuit proved to be helpful for him emotionally, Koenig saids.
"For a while it felt like caramel dripping off an apple, the shame was so heavy," he saids. "I don't have any more shame. The lawsuit put the shame at their feet, the church and Lambert, and left it there."
Pochop saids she hopes Catholic leaders turn the recent upheaval into something positive.
"I hope the church can realize this is an opportunity to reach out to a lot of people who are hurt and find this a barrier to their faith," she saids.
"I'm very proud to be a priest," Carlson said during the March interview. "I'm well aware of some of the weaknesses of priests. I'm a sinner, after all."
Reach Jill Callison at 331-2307 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bishop Robert Carlson's letter
On April 2, the Argus Leader submitted questions in writing to Bishop Robert Carlson of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls. The request was made to ensure thoroughness and accuracy and because some dioceses across the country have begun to provide media with information about their handling of sexual abuse cases.
The letter asked the diocese to disclose how many allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy have been reported in the past 40 years, whether any were substantiated and what happened to the clergy who were involved. It also asked whether settlements had been made, for a total amount paid in such settlements and whether the diocese is currently working with any victims of clerical abuse or aware of any pending lawsuits.
Following is Carlson's response:
April 10, 2002
Dear Mr. Beck:
I received your letter of April 2, 2002 concerning sexual abuse by priests. I must confess that after a thorough and straightforward interview with your reporter, Jill Callison, I was surprised to receive your letter. I assume that in fairness you have sent similar letters to the representatives of all other mainline Protestant churches and other institutions working with children.
The term abuse is a very broad term, and I assume that you are referring to sexual abuse of children and young adults (older teens) by priests. The Diocese has had a policy concerning sexual misconduct in place since 1989, and we revisited it in 1993.
We have no central file covering sexual abuse or allegations concerning sexual abuse dating back over the 100 plus years that the Diocese has been in operation. However, I have invited the Attorney General for South Dakota, or anyone he might appoint, to review how I have handled cases in light of State statutes.
To my knowledge, we have no pedophile serving in any of the offices, ministries or the 152 parishes of this diocese. When I came to the diocese, I asked staff to review priest files with me. The only case involving a lawsuit in my time was the Neuroth case. I am certain you are aware that there is a confidentiality agreement in that case. These agreements are meant to protect all parties and are binding on all parties. We were represented by our insurer, and it did not involve monies from the Foundation or CFSA which are restricted and can only be used for ministry.
On an ongoing basis we invite victims of sexual abuse to come forward, and they are our first priority. We have a serious pastoral obligation to respond to their concerns. Across society mistakes were made in the past, and we continue to learn. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, many, if not most, psychologists and treatment professionals thought people with sexual abuse problems could be treated. However, today we know that treatment sometimes fails.
I offer once again an apology to any one who is a victim of sexual abuse. We stand ready to offer pastoral care to any victim who will come forward. I know of no child abuser working in a parish in the Diocese. And I say again what I said to almost 2000 young people, parents, teachers, deacons, pastoral ministers and priests at our Chrism Masses in Aberdeen and Sioux Falls in March - I am proud to serve with the priests of this Diocese. We repeat that sexual abuse of children by bishops, priests and church workers runs counter to everything Jesus stands for.
I consider this letter private correspondence and I give no permission to quote from it - it may be used only in its entirety.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Most Rev. Robert J. Carlson
Bishop of Sioux Falls
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.