Parish Acts to Remove Pain

The Hawk Eye [Des Moines IA]
Downloaded January 25, 2004

DES MOINES — Members of the tiny Saints Philip and James parish in Grand Mound are learning that pain is not easily erased or denied.

When abuse allegations began to surface about the Rev. James Janssen, Grand Mound's parish priest from 1980 to 1990, members tried to erase his name from one of the church's stained glass windows, where parishioners' and priests' names are engraved to commemorate service or special anniversaries.

They tried varnish remover, paintbrush cleaner and nail polish remover to lift the name of the man who has been accused in lawsuits of sexually abusing eight boys during his 42 years as a priest in the Davenport diocese. Finally, they took the whole window out and had that pane of glass replaced.

As of mid–December, Janssen had been named in seven lawsuits. Two lawsuits claim Janssen abused boys at St. Joseph Parish in Fort Madison, where the priest served as assistant pastor from 1961 to 1967. Janssen served at 13 Davenport diocese parishes from 1948 until his retirement in 1990.

While people claiming to be victims of abuse have filed lawsuits, victim advocacy groups have accused the Davenport diocese of being slow to act in responding to both victims' claims and the mandates of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, which required dioceses across the country to complete studies of past abuses and to develop policies aimed at preventing future abuse.

The Davenport diocese was the last of four in Iowa to complete its sexual abuse prevention policy. The policy was released in July and unlike a similar document completed by the Archdiocese of Dubuque, there is no requirement in the Davenport policy that civil authorities be notified for possible criminal prosecution.

On Jan. 17, after weeks of reflection and discussion, the Saints Philip and James parish council sent a critical letter to Davenport Bishop William Franklin. The council then sent the letter to several local newspapers, The Des Moines Register reported Saturday.

"We can no longer maintain our silence, as silence constitutes consent to sexual abuse of our children," the letter said.

The congregation accused the diocese of failing to provide the information or services needed to help it heal the pain it was experiencing. Nor did the diocese follow its own sexual conduct policy.

"At no time did diocesan officials contact us as parish council members. At no time were we offered a parish meeting with diocesan officials or otherwise for a more complete discussion of the complaint. And, at no time were any follow–up procedures established to assess the ongoing impact of the disclosures in our parish," they wrote.

"I think this is the first time a parish has challenged the bishop on this issue," said Craig Levine, a lawyer handling most of the sexual abuse lawsuits against the diocese. Diocese officials said neither the bishop, nor other diocese leaders were available to speak about the congregation's letter or the church's response.

The decision to demand action from the bishop was not taken lightly, parish council members said.

"We decided to do something on behalf of the parish because we knew they were hurting," said parish council member Diane Scott of Grand Mound.

The final draft of the letter was crafted after five council meetings and countless e–mail revisions, said Neil A. Mason of Calamus, council president.

"Looking back, the first drafts were very angry," Mason said.

Council members drew straws to determine who would read the letter to the congregation. Lisa Fox DeWitt drew the short straw.

When the congregation gathered for Mass on Jan. 16, the kindergarten teacher believed she was prepared. But then the news raced through the church: Bishop Franklin was here. No one knew he was coming. Franklin told them later that a victim suggested he come to the parish's Mass.

At the end of the services, Fox walked to the podium and read the letter:

"By being forthcoming with information regarding the accusations of sexual abuse within our diocese, you have the chance of a lifetime to break down barriers and build a bridge of reconciliation, healing and compassion between the hierarchy and the laity of the Catholic Church," she read.

And when she finished, there was a short pause. Then the entire congregation applauded.

At the conclusion of the services, Franklin joined the congregation in the church classrooms. The conversation continued for two hours.

The council asked the bishop for a response before Feb. 2.