Split Sugar Creek
By Kay Luna
GOOSE LAKE, Iowa — Jim Roling can see the steeple of St. Joseph Parish in Sugar Creek from his family’s farmhouse, where he grew up fearing God and respecting priests.
The 53-year-old seed-corn dealer remembers spending many evenings playing cards and hanging out with the Rev. James Janssen in the 1960s, when the Catholic priest was known in the tight-knit rural community for his rapport with young people.
Now, more than 30 years later, allegations of sex abuse filed in two Clinton County lawsuits against 81-year-old Janssen and another area priest, the Rev. Francis Bass, are tearing apart Roling and his neighbors.
“It’s haunting our church. It’s ruining our church, really,” Roling said. “Fingers are being pointed at all of us in the Sugar Creek area.”
The lawsuits, filed by two Clinton County men known only as “John Doe” and “John Doe II” in court documents, claim Janssen abused them when they were altar boys at St. Joseph Parish in Sugar Creek.
The lawsuits claim Janssen took the boys to an adult movie theater in Clinton, and said, before abusing them, “This is how we build trust.”
The newest lawsuit also names Bass as a collaborator in the abuse, which the plaintiffs said happened at the Sugar Creek rectory and the parish rectory in Newton, and in out-of-state hotels, including one in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The plaintiffs also blame the Diocese of Davenport for failing to protect them from the abuse.
The diocese has said church leaders are reviewing the complaints. Both priests retired in the early 1990s, according to the diocese.
Janssen’s attorney, Edward Wehr of Davenport, and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Craig Levien of Davenport, declined to comment about the cases. Bass could not be reached for comment.
The legal action has stunned Roling and other church members, who said they never saw or sensed any wrongdoing by the priests and cannot imagine who is behind the lawsuits.
In this small parish where most everyone knows each other, and many are related, Roling said the allegations left neighbors suspecting each other and outsiders pointing fingers at the community for hurting the church this way.
“We are shocked they don’t put their names on the lawsuit,” Roling said. “Not publicizing the names behind these lawsuits really bothers me.”
Many Sugar Creek members, who were teenagers when Janssen led the church, remember the priest for his work designing a teen hangout called the Sugar Shack in the former church school’s basement.
With Janssen serving as their adult supervision, the teens listened to records, played pinball and card games and hung out together many weekends over the years.
Several said they also remember a group of boys from the Fort Madison parish, where Janssen formerly served as pastor, coming to spend weekends at the parish hall for Sugar Shack events.
Never, ever, did Roling or his friends see or sense anything wrong, he said.
“I swear,” Roling said. “I even spent time in his home at nights and we did nothing wrong. We did absolutely nothing wrong. Father Janssen has never laid a finger on anyone that I know of.”
Another former parishioner, who did not want her name to be used, said she spent a lot of time around Janssen as a teenager, while attending church and teen activities in Sugar Creek. She also remembers Janssen as an upstanding church leader, who later officiated at her wedding.
“I was very surprised when I read all this stuff,” she said. “I never heard of anyone having any problems with him. As far as I knew him, he was a very nice guy.”
Kay Johnson of Delmar said she was “appalled” when she heard about the lawsuit that named Bass, who served as pastor at St. Patrick’s Parish in Delmar from 1981-92.
Johnson said she is not Catholic, but made friends with Bass over the years because of her holiday decorating. She described him as “such a kind man,” who enjoyed learning about computers and trying out electronic gadgets.
“Just because you’re a priest doesn’t mean you’re not human,” Johnson said. “It’s not right, if they did this. But now that they’re old men, why are they doing this to them now?”
Mary Vinyard of Davenport said she remembers Janssen and the other accused priest, Bass, in a very different light.
Vinyard was a teenager when Bass served in her Davenport neighborhood parish, St. Joseph’s, in the 1960s. She remembers Bass and his close friend, Janssen, hanging out and wrestling with the boys in the area all the time.
She said she knew at least one of the priest’s alleged victims and that it was common knowledge among the kids that Bass was allegedly sexually abusing many of the boys he befriended.
“He would take the boys to a cabin on the river for overnight stays,” Vinyard said. “He said he needed sex and girls couldn’t be trusted. The guys all hung together. He played not only on their religion, but also on the macho thing.”
The former Catholic said she tried to tell her mother, a devout Catholic who since has died, about the suspected abuse at the time. She said her mother slapped her face and told her not to speak about priests that way.
Vinyard said she never forgot about the boys.
“I absolutely could not believe Father Bass’ name didn’t
come up sooner,” she said.
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