Former Manhattan Priest One of 14 in Diocese Who Church Says Sexually Abused Children
By Megan Moser
March 29, 2019
Three men have alleged that the Catholic priest who was superintendent of Seven Dolors Grade School and Luckey High School in the 1950s and 1960s sexually abused them while they were students there.
In an anonymous account, the three men wrote that Monsignor William Merchant, who died in 1975, molested and sexually assaulted them and other boys at the school.
The Catholic Diocese of Salina, which oversees the Manhattan area, on Friday released a list of 14 clergy members within the diocese against whom there have been substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. The report included Merchant and two other priests who had served in Manhattan since the 1950s, and several more who served at other area churches.
The account by the men Merchant abused while they were students and altar boys was included with the report.
“Merchant was a pedophile and sexual predator who ruthlessly exploited grade school and high school children over an extended period of time,” they wrote. “In our collective opinion, Msgr. Merchant’s avocation was masquerading as a Catholic priest while pursuing his true vocation as an aggressive sexual predator. His position as the superintendent of schools offered him a replenishable supply of victims to satisfy his perversity.”
They said they spent their formative years in a toxic environment created by Merchant.
“This was a man charged with nurturing the moral values of children, but instead, he engaged in despicable, self-indulgent sexual gratification with a sense of entitlement and total impunity,” they wrote.”
Fifty years after the abuse occurred, the men decided to write to Bishop Gerald Vincke.
Vincke was hired at about the same time as the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, released in August, which exposed abuse by hundreds of priests and called for greater transparency in the Catholic Church.
Vincke had only been on the job for a month when he hired an independent law firm to review clergy personnel files and identify cases of clergy misconduct with minors.
Attorney Courtney Boehm of Cottonwood Law in Hillsboro conducted the audit, which included clergy from the late 1800s to present day. Boehm then turned the findings over to the state attorney general’s office, who then sent it to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. It was not clear what the KBI has done with the information.
The auditor recommended the church’s Lay Review Board look over some cases, which it did in February. It found 14 cases of clergy abuse that could be substantiated.
None of the 14 priests are in active ministry today. Of the 14 priests, 12 are deceased and the remaining two have been laicized, meaning they are no longer members of the clergy.
Vincke said in a release that he was disheartened to discover that the allegations against Merchant were “mishandled.”
“In 1968, the Salina Diocese received two allegations of abuse of a minor against Msgr. Merchant,” he said. “A more thorough investigation of these allegations should have been done. In 1999, another allegation of abuse of a minor was made against Msgr. Merchant. It does not appear that a thorough investigation into this allegation was conducted until 2002, when the alleged victim reached out again. In 2002, the Salina Diocese properly investigated the allegation.”
Since then, he said, several individuals have made allegations of abuse against Merchant.
“The church needs to be open, honest and transparent,” Vincke said. “The Church has made mistakes. ... It is my sincere desire that we can learn from our errors and never let them happen again.”
He said he believes the diocese has made progress in ensuring it responds appropriately and effectively to any allegations made against clergy.
The men who were Merchant’s victims praised Vincke’s handling of the situation.
“He was quick to respond, candid, explained his understanding of events surrounding Msgr. Merchant and offered his genuine apology,” they said.
OTHER PRIESTS LISTED
The other priests listed who had served in Manhattan were the late John Moeder, who worked at Seven Dolors Catholic Church; and Robert Reif, who worked at St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center.
Moeder was at Seven Dolors from 1971 to 1981, and the abuse took place during the late 1970s. The report said there was one known allegation of abuse. Moeder died in 2012, so he was deceased at the time of the allegation in 2018. The diocese conducted an investigation, according to the report.
Reif was suspended from ministry for multiple allegations of abuse and sent away for treatment from 1986 to 1987, according to the report. He was granted a leave of absence in 1988 and did not return to the Diocese of Salina.
The estimated time frame of the abuse was the 1970s and ’80s, and the allegations were made in 1986, 2002 and 2005.
Reif was laicized in 2006. It was not immediately clear whether the abuse had occurred during his time in Manhattan.