‘Community divided:’ Kansas Archbishop defends priest hiring at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa

KSHB - NBC 41 [Kansas City MO]

January 25, 2024

By Lisa McCormick

[See also the letter by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann]

Parents at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa are alarmed and asking questions over this month’s appointment of a priest — alleged in 2021 of sexual abuse of a minor – as the parish’s new senior associate pastor.

The group also has concerns about how they learned about Fr. John Pilcher’s appointment and his background. They first heard the news on Jan. 13 when Pilcher disclosed it to the congregation during Mass.

“I want to be totally transparent,” Pilcher said during his homily, which was recorded and posted on YouTube. “If you Google my name, you will find that back in 2021 when I was pastor at Mater Dei (Catholic Church in Topeka), an allegation was brought up against me.”

That allegation involved the sexual abuse of a minor. The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said it immediately placed Pilcher on leave after the allegation surfaced in April of 2021.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the archdiocese investigated the claim and determined it was unsubstantiated. Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay did not file charges against Pilcher.

Pilcher denied the allegation and cooperated with the investigation, according to the archdiocese.

After the investigation concluded, the archdioceses allowed Pilcher to return to his ministry at Mater Dei Catholic Church.

“While this was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, there is nothing more important than the safety of our children,” Pilcher told the Holy Trinity congregation. “And as such, the Church must always take any accusations with great seriousness.”

‘It’s dividing the community’

Parents say Pilcher’s appointment has sent shockwaves through the Holy Trinity community, which has a kindergarten through 8th-grade school and a daycare with toddlers on its campus.

“It’s dividing the community, which always felt safe,” one concerned parent told the KSHB 41 I-Team. “Now parents have questions and concerns.”

A petition is circulating online calling for the immediate resignation of Pilcher. It has nearly 200 signatures.

During Mass on Sunday, Jan. 21, at Holy Trinity Church, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann discussed Pilcher’s appointment – directly from the pulpit.

“The purpose of my visit today is to address some of the confusion and turmoil over the recent appointment of Fr. John Pilcher to serve as senior associate pastor here at Holy Trinity,” he said during his homily.

The archbishop reiterated that investigations by law enforcement and the archdiocese cleared Pilcher of any wrongdoing.

“The protection of children is a paramount concern for both parents and the Church,” Naumann, who later met with parishioners after Mass, said. “I would never assign a priest to Holy Trinity or any other parish that I believed posed a threat to the safety of our children.”

Naumann also asked Holy Trinity parishioners to be fair and open in their judgment of Pilcher.

“It is imperative that we strive for excellence considering the protection of children,” Naumann said. “But at the same time, we must pursue truth and protect the rights of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

“I ask you to receive him with an openness,” the archbishop added.

Some Holy Trinity parents, however, are still confused and upset by the archdiocese’s decision to assign Pilcher to a school community.

“There is always going to be eyes on him,” one parent told the I-Team. “What’s to gain? Why bring in a priest with a troubled background?”

Second person with sexual abuse allegations hired in Archdiocese

This is the second person with an allegation of sexual abuse in their background the archdiocese has hired in recent months.

As the I-Team reported in August, the new president of Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Phil Baniewicz, was named as a defendant in a sexual abuse civil lawsuit in 2005.

At the time, Baniewicz served as a youth minister for Life Teen. He is one of Life Teen’s founding leaders, based out of St. Timothy’s Catholic parish in Mesa, Arizona.

The victim who filed the lawsuit alleged the sexual abuse happened in the mid-1980s, when he was a minor at the parish. The victim accused Baniewicz and a priest Baniewicz was closely affiliated with of sexually abusing him more than once. The victim also accused another priest of watching and knowing about the abuse but doing nothing.

The case was set to go to trial in 2007, but the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Phoenix, also a defendant, agreed to settle the lawsuit. The victim dropped the lawsuit and criminal charges were never filed in connection with the case.

The I-Team talked to concerned Bishop Miege’s parents, who said the school and archdiocese were not forthcoming about Baniewiecz’s background.

In a June 30 letter to the Bishop Miege community, the Catholic high school announced it hired Baniewicz as its new president. But the letter didn’t mention the 2005 lawsuit or the allegation.

In mid-July, Baniewicz wrote an introductory letter to Miege families and disclosed he faced “false allegations” in his past. Baniewicz said someone made up a story about him and that “he had to endure the persecution.” Baniewicz, however, didn’t provide specifics of the allegation in his letter.

‘Reckless and irresponsible’

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) criticized the archdiocese’s assignments of Baniewicz and Pilcher.

“We’re deeply worried that Kansas’ Catholic archbishop, for the second time in six months, is putting an accused child molester to work in or near a Catholic school,” SNAP Director David Clohessy said in a statement to the I-Team. “These moves are reckless and irresponsible.”

Pilcher, however, was not charged in connection with this allegation.

“Archbishop Naumann let Bishop Miege hire Phil Baniewicz, who was named in a 2005 civil sexual abuse lawsuit in Arizona, as its new president,” Clohessy said. “Now, Naumann is transferring Fr. John Pilcher to Holy Trinity Parish, which has a parochial school, in Lenexa. Our simple question: Why take the risk?”

Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, who has represented clients victimized by abusive priests, also criticized Pilcher’s assignment at Holy Trinity.

“We have grave concerns that an alleged molester is being placed in a parish where a school is located,” she said in a statement, adding “…the Church should always err on the side of caution to protect their most precious and vulnerable parishioners.”

Reaction from Archdiocese

The I-Team reached out to the archdiocese for comment and a copy of its investigative report involving Pilcher. A spokeswoman declined to release the report, saying “the investigative reports are confidential.”

Late Wednesday night, the spokeswoman shared a two-page statement Naumann sent to Holy Trinity’s parents and parishioners about their concerns regarding Pilcher. The statement echoes many of the comments the archbishop made during his homily on Jan. 21.

“I want to acknowledge the gravity of this matter and assure you this allegation was found unsubstantiated after a thorough investigation by law enforcement and the Archdiocese, and a subsequent review by the Archdiocesan Independent Review Board,” the statement said. “The Archdiocese followed its safe environment protocols and Father Pilcher fully cooperated with the process and stepped aside from ministry throughout the investigation.”

He added: “After careful consideration of the investigative reports, I, with absolute confidence, returned Father Pilcher to ministry.”

Naumann said he recognized that Pilcher’s assignment could trigger what he called “mixed emotions.”

“The paramount concern for the well-being and safety of our children is non-negotiable, and to that end, I can assure you that every precaution was taken in handling this case with the utmost diligence,” he said.

The Archbishop also said he’s aware of the online petition calling for Pilcher’s resignation and “misinformation” circulating in the parish.

“It is disheartening to recognize that accusations of misconduct can affect anyone in today’s world,” he said. “In such cases, it is only fair that individuals are granted a process of due diligence where the evidence is thoroughly examined by professionals.”

The archdiocese also said it would continue to respond to parents’ and parishioners’ concerns about Pilcher. A spokeswoman encouraged anyone with information about misconduct by clergy members, employees, or church volunteers to contact authorities and call the archdiocese’s hotline at 913-647-3051.

We are still waiting for records from the Topeka Police Department regarding Pilcher’s investigation.

A KBI spokesperson said the agency cannot answer questions specifically about Pilcher. Spokeswoman Melissa Underwood said the agency handles investigations involving clergy “in the same manner we do all criminal investigations” and only names someone if charges are filed.