In the Fear of the Father
[See also Part 2 of this feature, The Other Side of Paradise, by Margaret Poe and Mason Kerns, Daily Iowan, May 9, 2007. See also the plaintiff's Statement of Disputed Facts, with affidavits by former students, in Gould v. Soens.]
Since 1985, more than 20 priests serving southeastern Iowa's Roman
Catholic Diocese of Davenport, including four who worked in Iowa City,
have been accused of sexual abuse - the lion's share reportedly perpetrated
against young boys under the clergymen's spiritual guidance - in alleged
incidents dating back to the 1940s. Yet until very recently, many Iowa
City residents had forgotten about Bishop Lawrence Donald Soens, the former
Regina High School principal accused of molesting and allegedly causing
recurring psychological trauma in so many of his former students.
Shortly after Ray Pechous became principal at Iowa City's Regina Inter-Parish Catholic Education Center in 2000, he insisted that a window be cut into his office door. The 1963 Regina graduate said he wanted to "protect himself and his students."
And in 2002, after a distraught Regina graduate left a series of messages on the school's answering machine that set off a slew of sexual-abuse allegations against Bishop Lawrence Soens, Pechous' precautionary measure seemed prudent indeed: The windowless wooden slab that had isolated the then-principal and the boys from the outside world, accusers say, had allowed Soens to make their lives a living hell.
At present, as lawsuits continue to pummel Soens' reputation, just what happened in that small office has become pivotal in millions of dollars in sexual-abuse claims. The allegations, it turns out, are far from uniform and far from uncontested.
For example, some members of the 1960s Regina community say they witnessed Soens rough-housing boys in the hall, but they never heard about any sexual abuse that allegedly occurred in his office and under the cloak of a diocese widely accused of shuffling abusive clergy among its parishes to avert broad knowledge of sexual misconduct.
But many who deny the abuse were Regina authority figures at the time of the alleged transgressions. Court documents and interviews with accusers and other witnesses collectively charge Soens with exploiting his fiduciary, spiritual, and disciplinary authority to molest male students. Sometimes, accusers say, he would simply brush a student's genitals; other times, he would attempt to perform oral sex on an unsuspecting young man.
The 40 years since Soens' alleged sexual misconduct have blurred the memories of all those involved. But one notion is shared by Soens' supporters and accusers alike: a secretive, even furtive, culture enveloped and dominated the 500-student, tightly knit Catholic school, undercutting the ability of anyone to speak out.
As Brenda Dalton, the wife of Soens accuser Mike Dalton, said, "It was a lot more innocent time. Really naive. People just didn't talk about sexual abuse."
Even if they had spoken up, accusers and doubters say their parents wouldn't have believed them. The Catholic Church was their ultimate authority, and Soens was "the intermediary between God and man"; questioning either would equal blasphemy. Even Pechous, who said he doesn't recall hearing of any abuse while he attended Regina, speculates that he wouldn't have told his parents about any sexual act by a priest.
Some former students say refusing Soens' advances would have brought threats of expulsion. Accusers and non-abused witnesses said the school's secretaries knew about, even witnessed, Soens molesting students, but they were either unable or unwilling to confront the principal. And on more than one occasion, students told a fellow parish priest about Soens' actions, accusers said.
Yet, rather than report the alleged abuse, or even confront Soens, the principal's peers reportedly refused to intervene, instead telling students to "pray for Father Soens."
No one could stand up to Soens, accuser Michael Gould told The Daily Iowan: "It's a good example of absolute power corrupting absolutely."
Emboldened by suits against Catholic priests at dioceses nationwide, Soens' accusers have begun seeking compensation for the years of pain and suffering allegedly wrought by the hands of what they call a manipulative, sadistic bishop. In 2004, Dalton settled out-of-court with Soens for $20,000.
But it wasn't until June 2005 - when Gould sued Soens, Regina, and the diocese - that the legal battle began in earnest, with accusers saying that psychological trauma prevented them from speaking out sooner. Two more suits, one filed by former student Dennis Allen and the other by Gene Burns, Patrick Cannon, and 11 John Doe plaintiffs, followed. Numerous non-plaintiffs gave sworn testimony about Soens that supported allegations of those seeking damages.
Regina's board of directors is accused of ignoring signs of abuse, while accusers charge the diocese with trying to cover up Soens' alleged actions and not noticing the supposed danger he posed to students.
On Oct. 9, 2006, Regina School Board President Lee Iben announced that, if plaintiffs win their case against the school, it was prepared to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But the next day, a judge dropped Regina as a defendant in Gould's case, dispelling worries that the school would be hurled into major financial trouble.
Allen's claim was dismissed when he died of cancer, but the Gould and Cannon/Burns/Doe cases against Soens and the diocese are still alive. Technically, Regina is still a defendant in the Cannon suit, but the school could be dropped considering precedent in the Gould case, plaintiffs' attorney Craig Levein said.
"But we have additional arguments in the Cannon case that differentiates it from Gould's, so it's hard to say what the judge will do," said the attorney, who added that he believes Regina's hint at bankruptcy was a public relations ploy to garner sympathy. "We know they have millions."
Levein has resisted Soens attorney Tim Bottaro's motion for a summary judgment ruling in both remaining cases against Soens. A trial date has yet to be set for either, and an out-of-court settlement remains possible.
Soens has maintained through his lawyer that he committed no acts of sexual abuse. Interviews indicate that most Regina faculty say they doubt the principal could have molested young boys; if he did, they say, they knew nothing of the sexual encounters. The diocese also denies any wrongdoing.
But Levein, who recently helped a man molested by a Davenport priest win a $1.5 million settlement against the diocese, said the Catholic bureaucracy needs to be held accountable.
"When we are seeking $750,000 and the jury comes back and awards $1.5 million, I see that as outrage on the part of the jury, outrage at the extent of abuse allowed to have occured," Levein said of the Michl Uhde trial. "I was shocked when I first started representing these people at how widespread this was, but I see now that the hundreds who have come forward are just the tip of the iceberg."
Now, as the lawyers scramble to strengthen their respective cases, Soens' accusers continue to struggle with their past - the disputed details of which have made some Iowa City Catholics question, even dismiss, their faith.
Pleasant to be around?
Having graduated from seminary at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, a 31-year-old Soens was hired as a priest in Iowa City's St. Mary's Catholic Church, and as principal of Regina, in 1958. Father Eugene Benda, currently a priest in Mechanicsville, Iowa, remembers Soens as "just a pleasant guy to be around."
"Larry was well-liked by the kids, as far as I could tell," said Benda, a freshman theology teacher at Regina from 1960-67.
Benda recalls Soens as a competent principal who would arrange a "holy hour" gathering once a month when all the parish priests would talk and play cards. The clergymen even competed in a bowling league.
"Larry would always be on our teams," Benda said. "He'd never do real well, but golly, we had a lot of fun."
Yet the affidavits and interviews with several former Regina students portray a man entirely different from descriptions given by diocese officials and Soens' supporters.
Accusers say the principal would shepherd young boys into his office under the guise of discipline - chewing gum in class could yield a trip to see "the big guy" - and begin the now-familiar pattern of alleged abuse.
Once in the office, according to allegations: Soens would engage the student in conversation about topics ranging from the mundane to the significant. Often, he would wheel his chair out from behind his desk and stand behind the student, rubbing and pinching the student's nipples. He would then sit down in his chair across from the boy, trapping the student's legs between his own. With the frightened and startled student at his mercy, Soens would aggressively fondle the young man.
Accusers say Soens would often look students in the eye and offer life lessons while he molested them.
Regina Student No. 14 stated he was abused while Soens was trying to talk him into going to seminary. Regina Student No. 15 was reportedly grilled about masturbating and having sex with girls on summer vacation while he was fondled. Regina Student No. 17 said he was called into the office and abused while being told that his grades "weren't good enough to be home-room representative."
And though most of the alleged abuse occurred in the office, Soens' actions reportedly took place in other areas of the school. For example, Regina Student No. 48 testified that during the summer before his freshman year, Soens saw him mowing lawn near the school. After inviting him inside "for lemonade," Soens allegedly pulled down the student's shorts and tried to perform oral sex on him, the student said.
Opinions regarding Soens' motivation vary. In statements, many accusers say they believe the principal attained satisfaction by successfully arousing male students. Others say he derived sexual pleasure by inflicting pain.
After Soens was publicly accused, nationally known clergy-abuse psychologist Richard Sipe evaluated the bishop's conduct. The therapist, who is trained to treat sexual- and alcohol-related behavior and mental-health issues in Catholic priests, contended that Soens' apparent desire to inflict harm indicated an intense psychological bent.
"Sadistic behavior - that is inflicting pain especially to the genitals - is a manifestation of the eroticization of dominance," Sipe wrote in his statement. The psychologist's report noted that Soens' alleged practice of trying to arouse boys to the point of ejaculation before pinching the tip of their penises was a documented tactic employed by many abusive Catholic clergy.
Sipe cited a Catholic doctrine that states sin is avoided if an orgasm is prevented. Many priests will perform this so-called circumvention of evil while "holding a crucifix in their hand," he wrote in his report.
Victim affidavits also state that Soens' alleged behavior led many students to leave Regina prematurely.
In an affidavit filed Aug. 28 in Naples, Fla., Steve Kinney, who attended Regina from 1960-61, wrote that his response to a sexual encounter with Soens ultimately led to his expulsion. In his statement, Kinney said the principal tried to fondle his genital area.
"I rebuffed him twice and told him if he tried it again, I would break his arm," Kinney's statement said. "At the end of the school year, he dismissed me from Regina High School, and I attended public school."
Regina Student No. 11 stated that after a basketball practice one Saturday, Soens came through the dressing room and told him to go to the principal's office. The player's statement said after Soens allegedly gripped and pinched his genitals, the student demanded "that he send my transcript to the public school … and ran out of his office."
"I went to the public school the following Monday, and my school records were there," Student No. 11 said.
As a 14-year-old Regina freshman in 1964, Regina Student No. 5 would be continually sent to the principal's office, he stated. There, Soens would allegedly grope him, while telling him he was being punished for misconduct. When the student stopped going to the office when summoned, he was expelled, he said.
Drinking with, and confiding in, Bevenour
In statements and testimony, Soens accusers and non-accuser witnesses often bring up Father Richard Bevenour. Records indicate that Bevenour, priest at Iowa City's St. Mary's parish and Regina teacher when Soens was principal, was very popular among the kids, particularly football players, because he often bought beer for the underage students on the weekends.
Benda, the Mechanicsville priest, worked with Bevenour at St. Mary's. Though he said he never confronted Bevenour about the alcohol allegations, he said he felt that "it wasn't very prudent for Dick [Bevenour] to provide liquor to kids who aren't of age."
Bevenour is not accused of sexual abuse. Rather, former students blame him of ignoring pleas for help from alleged Soens victims.
In his statement, Regina Student No. 18 said Bevenour, a strict disciplinarian in the classroom, would often take students on retreats to St. Mary's in Riverside, Iowa. The student stated that once:
"[Bevenour] took us up to the rectory. And we all drank - I was 14 at that time … We had to be real quiet, I remember him telling us that, because Monsignor Meinberg was sleeping there."
The other clergyman the student references is Carl Meinberg, a former St. Mary's priest who died in 1975. Meinberg, who served as president of St. Ambrose University before transferring to St. Mary's, was accused in 2006 of sexually abusing a child in the 1940s.
After the retreat, No. 18 stated, he decided to tell Bevenour that Soens was sexually abusing him:
"I told him in the confessional that, apparently, I'm sinning because that principal of our school is taking me in [to his office] and playing with my jewels … and he goes something about some Hail Marys or something. I said, 'But it just keeps happening.' He goes, 'Well, you need to pray for Father Soens.' That was the response I got."
The student said he was trying to "plant a seed" so that Bevenour would confront Soens to tell him that he needs to stop abusing children.
Regina Student No. 22, a Soens accuser who is not seeking damages, wrote in his affidavit that while sitting in the first-floor living room at the rectory in the fall of 1964, he told Bevenour, "When you go into Father Soens' office, you get squeezed or purpled by him on your nipples or testicles.
"Father Bevenour gave me a look to discourage me from providing any further details and showed no surprise," the student stated. "He asked me, 'Does that make you bothered?' "
Bevenour, contacted at his home in Fresno, Calif., refused to comment on the accusations involving Soens. In addition, Bevenour dismissed allegations that he consistently purchased alcohol for underage Regina students from John's Grocery in Iowa City.
"That's absolutely not true," he said.
But as interviews show, the priest is not the only adult at Regina accused of enabling Soens.
E-mail DI reporters at:
Wednesday, the DI investigates claims that Regina adults ignored toward Soens' alleged abuse and examines changes in Catholic high schools.
A DIOCESE IN DISARRAY
Since 1985, 20 clergy in the Davenport Diocese - including four who had served Iowa City parishes - have been accused of sexual abuse. The allegations have already cost the diocese more than $10 million in settlements.
- May 6, 1950: Lawrence Donald Soens, then 23, is ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport.
- 1958-67: Soens serves in Iowa City's St. Mary's Catholic Church and as principal of Iowa City Regina High School; more than 20 former Regina students have since accused Soens of sexually abusing them.
- 1967-75: Soens serves as rector of the seminary at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, his alma mater; at least one
student there complains that Soens fondled him.
- 1978-83: Soens serves as pastor of St. Mary's in Clinton, Iowa.
- Aug. 17, 1983: Pope John Paul II selects Soens as bishop of the Sioux City Diocese.
- November 1998: Soens resigns as bishop.
- April 6, 2002: A former student calls Regina and describes "torturous" incidents of sexual abuse by Soens; the diocese would later conclude that some of Soens' actions may have been inappropriate but questioned "whether any of this conduct described would be for the adult's gratification."
- 2004: The diocese pays a combined $9 million to 38
victims of now-defrocked priest James Janssen of Davenport.
- October 2004: Mike Dalton, who says Soens fondled him once in the principal's office at Regina, settles for $20,000.
- June 2005: Former student Michael Gould sues Soens, Regina, and the diocese; he alleges Soens abused him and other students on numerous occasions and authorities knew of accusations but shielded Soens, rather than reprimand him.
- Aug. 15, 2005: Former student Dennis Allen sues Soens, Regina, and the diocese for claims similar to Gould's.
- February 2006: The diocese shells out almost $1 million to settle five additional sexual-abuse claims against its clergy.
- May 11, 2006: Fathers Paul Deyo and William Wiebler are defrocked in light of sexual-abuse allegations. Deyo, who served at St. Patrick's in Iowa City from 1991-92 and St. Wenceslaus in Iowa City from 1998-2000 and taught at Regina from 1991-2000, was voluntarily reduced to lay status after the diocese called the allegations "credible." Wiebler, who served at St. Mary's in Iowa City in the late 1960s, admitted to abusing at least a dozen boys.
- May 23, 2006: Monsignor Carl Meinberg is accused of molesting a boy at Iowa City's St. Mary's during the 1940s.
- Aug. 8, 2006: Thirteen additional former Regina students - Gene Burns, Patrick Cannon, and 11 John Doe plaintiffs - sue Soens, Regina, and the diocese.
- Sept. 18, 2006: A Scott County jury awards $1.5 million to Michl Uhde for abuse by Monsignor Thomas Feeney at St. Ambrose.
- Oct. 9, 2006: Regina School Board President Lee Iben announces that the school will file for bankruptcy if it loses its cases.
- Oct. 10, 2006: A judge drops Regina as a defendant in the Gould lawsuit; the diocese announces it will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing more than $7 million in outstanding claims.
- Oct. 13, 2006: Bishop William Franklin, head of the diocese, resigns amid the controversy and is replaced by Bishop Martin Amos of Cleveland.
- Oct. 23, 2006: Allen dies of cancer, ending his suit against Soens and the diocese.
- November 2006: Soens files for summary judgment in both the Gould case and the Cannon/Burns/Doe case; plaintiffs' attorney Craig Levein is resisting the motion.
- Now: Gould awaits trial against Soens and the diocese; Cannon/Burns/Doe await trial against those two defendants plus Regina.
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