KANSAS CITY (MO)
Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]
January 23, 2024
By Melinda Henneberger
At Mass on Sunday, Jan. 13, the new senior associate pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa, Father John Pilcher, stepped to the lectern to greet his new parishioners. He began with a joke about his dad the K-State fan, who had a lot to say when Pilcher was at one point sent to minister to the lost souls of Lawrence. Then, ka-pow: “Also, by way of introduction, I want to be totally transparent. If you Google my name, you will find that back in 2021, when I was pastor at Mater Dei” in Topeka, “an allegation was brought up against me.”
Then Pilcher talked about how, after he got the all-clear, “I was able to engage in a sabbatical program in Rome that included a two-week trip to Egypt.” Mamma mia, right? I get that he was nervous, mostly looking down and occasionally rocking from side to side as he read his statement. But if only his Italian educational opportunity had included a course in how to talk to humans.
I have been hearing from parents of kids in that parish and its school ever since. Because though the DA in Topeka declined to file charges and the church-appointed review board did not substantiate the sex abuse claim against Pilcher, either, could they really trust him with their children? How come nobody asked them? Was there no parish without a school and a bunch of families where he could have been sent?
“To say that I’m upset is an understatement,” one mom told me. “This just doesn’t feel right,” said another.
Then, this past Sunday, Archbishop Joseph Naumann visited the parish to, as he said at Mass, “address some of the confusion and turmoil over the recent appointment of Father John Pilcher.” During his homily, he spent a lot of time extolling Pilcher’s past success in raising money and getting buildings built. And neither did this endorsement gladden the hearts of many in the pews.
If the recordings I was sent of Naumann’s after-Mass meetings with parishioners are any indication, he wound up making things considerably worse, for one thing by rolling his eyes repeatedly in response to worried questions from parents.
“He did it dozens of times!” a parishioner who was there told me.
At one point, I heard a man on an audio recording of one of the meetings ask Naumann to please stop disrespecting him by doing that: “I just asked myself, are my children safer today than they were two weeks ago when this decision was made? And I have to trust my judgment and say no. And so again, I mean — why are you looking at me like that? I’m starting to get frustrated. You’re rolling your eyes!”
People were also crying, crying out and begging the archbishop not to divide or even destroy their wonderful, vibrant parish by, as they see it, putting their children at risk. They also told him he didn’t seem to care what they thought.
He said he did care, but also had to stand up for truth, the rights of accused priests and the idea that we’re all innocent until proven guilty.
‘A HAIL MARY FOR THE FATHER?’ ‘NOOOO!’
A friend of the archbishop tearfully commended him for being the rare prelate who would actually show up to hear their concerns. But when she suggested that they then end the meeting with “a Hail Mary for father,” the crowd absolutely lost it.
“Noooo!” they shouted, adding that not all of their questions had been answered and that they still did not feel heard.
“That’s how heated it was,” someone who was there told me. “Normally, this was a crowd that would have been all for that” suggestion of a Hail Mary, for any reason or none.
Afterward, this person said, parents stood around outside discussing where they should send their kids to school instead.
But in case they did decide to stay and fight, no one wanted to be quoted by name for fear of having their kids put out in the snow in retaliation, like that boy whose mom disagreed with the pastor at St. John LaLande Catholic School in Blue Springs was last year.
Neither the archdiocese nor Pilcher nor the pastor, Father Mike Koller, responded to my messages, though really, what could they say that I hadn’t heard already?
And what now? A bunch of people have signed a petition on Change.org calling for Pilcher’s immediate resignation, and that’s not going to happen.
What’s most amazing to me is that more than 20 years after the 2002 clerical sex scandals I covered and as a Catholic suffered through, we have leaders who are sure they get it and yet clearly still do not.
The way that Pilcher described the allegations against him at the meetings, which I won’t repeat here, absolutely outed his accuser, not by name but with highly specific identifying information, and that in itself is shameful.
But without doing that, here’s the allegation: A sixth-grader said a decade later that his teacher had sent him over to church to talk to Pilcher after he admitted being unconvinced by Pilcher’s lesson about the immorality of homosexuality. That’s where the now 23-year-old says he was victimized.
Naumann said no teacher would have done that, that the church would have been locked, and that no adult would ever, under current protocols, be alone with a child. Parents I spoke to were skeptical.
AFTER MANY FAILURES, NO MORE BLIND TRUST IN CHURCH
Could Pilcher have been wrongly accused? Of course. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was, which we know because his accuser recanted. And if that’s the case here, that’s truly terrible.
But since, as one parishioner told Naumann, the threshold for filing charges, especially years later, is so high, the fact that no charges were filed doesn’t relieve parents of all worry, either.
Some people, priests or not, are wrongly accused, while others wrongly go free.
And to ask parents to just blithely trust the church to have gotten it right this time, when our shepherds have so often failed us before, is neither rational nor humane.
Here I go, quoting a Sister of Mercy twice in two days, but when I interviewed Sister Jeanne Christensen a few years ago, she told me that as peace and justice director for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese under Bishop Raymond Boland, she spent four years as the victims’ advocate for those abused by clergy, and “out of all those we met,” only “one was not credible; he wanted money.”
I know a couple of predator priests, unfortunately, and also have friends in collars I’d trust with my life, and even with my children. But the days of blindly trusting the church to know the difference are over, and thank God for that.
Archbishop Naumann should have found another spot for Pilcher; even if he is innocent, why subject him to this? Now, because Naumann has made clear that he won’t reconsider, all that those parents at Holy Trinity who are worried but decide to stay can really do is look forward to wishing the archbishop a happy 75th birthday in June, when he will be required to submit his resignation, and Pope Francis may very well accept it.
Melinda Henneberger is The Star’s metro columnist and a member of its editorial board. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2022 and was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary in 2021, for editorial writing in 2020 and for commentary in 2019.