Bishop on Abuse Committee under Fire
Handling of Cases in Peoria Is Cited
By Flynn McRoberts and David Heinzmann
June 2, 2002
The grim news spilling from this central Illinois river town in recent weeks has carried all the hallmarks of the American Catholic Church's present nightmare:
Priests ousted from the ministry after allegations of sexual misconduct. Apologies to angry victims. The belated creation of a committee that includes lay professionals to better deal with abusive pastors.
Lost in the familiarity, though, is the fact that the man who until recently led those priests and victims is now one of eight prelates charged with mapping a way out of the church's crisis.
John J. Myers, who was promoted last year to lead the Newark archdiocese, was recently named to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. The committee is writing the policy proposal that will be put before the conference in Dallas later this month.
But some parishioners, pastors and victims in the Peoria diocese are challenging Myers' own judgment in the decade he led 240,000 Catholics spread over 26 central Illinois counties. Given his own approach to the issue, they are questioning his fitness to carry out his new role in addressing the church's mishandling of clerical sex abuse.
Those critics describe an ambitious "ecclesiastical politician," as one priest put it, who responded to some victims' cries only after they threatened to go public; moved certain problem priests without informing parishioners; and allegedly sought to purchase the silence of a church archivist who had gathered information on priests.
With his orthodox theology and reputation for relishing the princely trappings of Catholic prelates, Myers has prompted controversy throughout his climb from the Peoria diocese of his childhood to leadership of the 1.3 million-strong archdiocese of Newark.
Among his critics, Myers' notable moves in Peoria included his installation of a hot tub in the bishop's residence and his push to remove a Catholic teacher who had defied a priest's warning and allowed a classroom discussion on the ordination of women.
But it is not Myers' conservative theological bent that has drawn attention in recent weeks. More to the point is the fact that his successor, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, quickly decided he needed to craft a significantly tougher policy to address sexual misconduct by priests--an issue that some church leaders already had addressed.
In the most dramatic move, Jenky on Thursday removed seven accused priests.
In an interview late Friday, Myers, 60, rejected accusations that he was slow or reluctant to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by priests in his diocese.
"The actions that Bishop Jenky has taken were based on information I never had available to me," Myers said of Jenky's removal of the priests. "If I had known, I would have acted like he acted."
But one of Myers' former top aides said that while he assisted Myers, the idea of establishing an independent commission to review sexual misconduct--such as Jenky recently set up--was never discussed.
'Commission never came up'
"A commission never came up. I don't know why," said Monsignor Eric Powell, now pastor of St. Mary Church in Kickapoo, Ill.
Powell said Myers liked to handle sensitive issues personally and quietly. He said he believed Myers always did the right thing to protect victims and potential victims when he was faced with allegations.
Still, Powell acknowledged that parishioners now demand a different approach. Myers used "the older model--to deal with it seriously, but deal with it quietly," Powell said. "This newer model is more satisfying to the people of God."
Some victims and their family members have come forward to say Myers only reacted when faced with media exposure. They include Theresa Koenigs of Cambridge, Ill., who was outraged a year ago to hear that Myers planned to reinstate a priest who acknowledged molesting her son in the 1980s.
Koenigs said the diocese initially didn't respond to her repeated phone calls concerning the priest, Francis Engels, who was removed from active service in 1993 after allegations were brought against him.
"So then I called one last time and I told them, 'You have somebody call me in 10 minutes or I'm going to a newspaper.' They called me within 5 minutes," she recalled.
Koenigs said she was told: "Well, we thought enough time was elapsed, that everybody had healed and it would be OK."
"I said, 'No, it's not OK. Not ever. Some of my family are just now starting to heal, and now you want to put him back on the altar?"
Myers acknowledged in the interview that he did move to allow Engels to return to limited ministry, but only in capacities in which he would not have direct contact with minors. When Koenigs contacted him to object, he relented and kept Engels inactive.
"I didn't realize they would be so upset," he said of the Koenigses' reaction. "I changed my mind on the spot the second I understood how upset they were."
Another alleged victim of Engels also said Myers responded to complaints only after he and his family went to the media.
"He was cordial but didn't do anything," said Michael Emery, a former priest who accused Engels and another priest of abusing him. "I would say we got stonewalled."
Emery said he and his family first spoke face-to-face with Myers in November 1992 but nothing was done about Engels until after the family got frustrated and told their story to the Peoria Journal-Star several months later.
"Given my family's experience ... I think it's crazy" for Myers to be named to the bishops' committee on sex abuse, said Emery, who left the priesthood in 1988 and later got married. "I don't think he's dealt with it in an insightful fashion."
Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, now the chancellor in charge of handling sex-abuse allegations under Jenky, defended Myers' handling of such allegations, saying, "I would hope that we would not act with lightning speed on accusations like this" and be "fair to the victims and fair to the accused."
After Jenky announced the removal of seven priests last week, Myers said through a spokesman that "he really has no knowledge of the individual allegations against these priests."
But Myers was informed of allegations against at least two of the priests as early as 1993. That year, a victim accused Rev. John Anderson of sexual misconduct about a decade earlier, and the family asked that he be moved to administrative duties, said Rohlfs.
"We had an allegation against him. And the victim did not want to go public, and he did not want Anderson removed from the priesthood. He just wanted him removed from any access to children," said Rohlfs.
None of the assignments Anderson subsequently took involved contact with children, he said, including local fundraising for church mission work and later executive director of King's House of Retreats.
Anderson, now 69, was sent away for treatment and continued in regular therapy when he returned to Peoria, according to Myers. The former Peoria bishop said that to his knowledge Anderson was not guilty of sexually abusing minors.
Behavior called 'inappropriate'
"He had not broken the law, as far as we know," Myers said, but he had engaged in behavior that was "inappropriate." Myers declined to elaborate, but acknowledged that the behavior was serious enough to warrant in-depth treatment.
The second priest, whom Myers knew about as of 1997, was Rev. Norm Goodman. The former pastor of Holy Family Church in Lincoln, Ill., Goodman consistently has denied accusations brought by more than a dozen victims. But Bishop Jenky stripped him of his Roman collar last week.
One of the victims who settled a lawsuit with the diocese over Goodman's alleged abuse was Lance Rainforth, whose family owns two candy and gift shops in Peoria and Lincoln.
After the Rainforths approached the diocese with their complaints, according to one Peoria priest who asked not to be identified, Myers seemed to suggest that the family would pay a price for pursuing its charges. "Before this is all over with," the priest recalled Myers telling him, "the diocese could end up owning two candy stores."
On Friday, Myers said he could not recall whether he said that.
"If I said anything, it would have been that 'If you keep pushing this, then people might stop coming to your business,"' he said, because people at the time were very supportive of Goodman.
Three years after becoming Peoria's bishop, Myers purchased files on priests from an archivist at the diocese's cathedral parish.
The archivist, Paul Geers, sold the files to the diocese in November 1993 for $6,000.
The "agreement of sale" document, written in halting sentence fragments, included a reference to "a very large file on priests ... many old photos of priests and histories. Death, Gay, Aids, married, those who left Diocese." The agreement also included a promise that Geers not keep any copies of the documents and that he not discuss their contents with anyone.
The day after the sale, Geers said, he got a call from Powell. "Bishop Myers would like to buy your silence," Geers recalled the priest telling him. "I said, 'My silence is not for sale.'"
At the time, Geers was a parishioner at St. Mary's Cathedral parish and an amateur archivist who came across the information while interviewing priests for research into diocesan history. "He tried to buy my silence to keep me quiet and now he's on this committee? Come on," Geers said of Myers. "I'd like to know what they're hiding."
But Powell and Myers challenged the recollections of Geers. Powell said that if secrecy had been his purpose, he would have been shrewder than to say so openly. "I dispute that," Powell said. "It's not a very clever thing to say."
Myers said the diocese did pay Geers, but did so chiefly because they wanted control of any confidential personnel files, rather than have them circulating among people who shouldn't have access to them.
"We did not know what he had," Myers said. In the end, Myers insisted, Geers' claim of having confidential priest files was false.
Looking back on Myers' Peoria tenure, even some victims' attorneys compare Myers favorably with other bishops in his handling of sexual misconduct cases.
"He sought to compensate the victims, which I think is commendable," said Frederic Nessler, a Springfield attorney who handled the Goodman cases. "Some dioceses defend the cases at any cost on any technical grounds they can muster. That was not the case that I experienced with Myers," said Nessler.
But Nessler said Myers failed to act as forthrightly as his successor. "He did not act to remove the priest as Bishop Jenky has," the attorney said. "I think you need to act transparently, and that's what Bishop Jenky has done. He's acting quickly to rid the diocese of these alleged pedophiles."
Some with whom Myers publicly clashed acknowledge his talents. "Bishop Myers is bright and charming. He's a wonderful managerial person, a gifted canon lawyer," said Marlynn Kelsch, a former scripture teacher at Notre Dame High School in Peoria who was let go in 1993 by one of Myers' proteges; she had defied the priest's order not to allow her students to debate the idea of ordaining women.
Others who know Myers through the painful experience of their loved ones' abuse look at the breadth of bishops who mishandled such cases for years. And they wonder if it's possible to find any prelates who haven't erred.
"The way I look at it as a Catholic and a person, they're not going to find a perfect bishop," said Ron Koenigs, Theresa's husband and a retired factory worker. But "what good is a church if you can't trust the priest?"
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.