Bishop Accountability
  Parishes Skeptical of Abuse Allegations against Clergymen
Some Wonder Whether the Lawsuits Have Been Brought Forth for the Sake of Money

By Erin Jordan
Des Moines Register
November 26, 2003

Fort Madison, Ia. - Parishioners at Saints Mary and Joseph Catholic Church in Fort Madison talked last weekend about Thanksgiving plans and the temperature dropping 20 degrees during morning Mass.

They did not bring up allegations of sex abuse in their church.

Members of this 750-family parish say lawsuits filed against the Davenport Diocese and priests who served in Fort Madison parishes in the 1960s and 1970s tarnish the reputations of good, caring priests.

"Maybe it has happened, but it's been blown out of proportion," said Cathy Holtkamp, 38, of Keokuk.

Longtime parishioners at this church and others in eastern Iowa feel the same way. Eight men have filed lawsuits this year against the Davenport Catholic Diocese, which has 87 churches in the southeastern part of the state. The Davenport Diocese has more sex-abuse claims than any of Iowa's other three dioceses another was filed Monday in Clinton County District Court. Most of those suits -six -have involved the Rev. James Janssen.

Holtkamp and her mother, Bernice Holtkamp, 77, of Fort Madison, said they doubt allegations that Janssen molested six boys in five eastern Iowa parishes from 1953 to 1982. The mother and daughter chatted Sunday during the church's annual Sunrise Harvest Gathering, a breakfast and bake sale in the parish hall.

"I wonder if it's even true," said Bernice Holtkamp. "Father Janssen was priest at St. Joseph when we moved out there in `58. He would get up there and preach off the cuff. He was great at that."

Holtkamp's son, now 55, was an altar server when Janssen was priest at St. Joseph's, she said. Her son "never said a word (about abuse), and he would have said something," she said.

James N. Wells of Davenport accused Janssen in a September lawsuit of abusing him for years, starting in 1953 and continuing into the 1960s in Fort Madison. A Scott County man sued Janssen, the Rev. Francis Bass, the Rev. Theodore Geerts and the diocese in October, alleging the priests sexually assaulted him repeatedly while he was an altar server in a Fort Madison parish in the 1960s.

A Burlington man claims in his July lawsuit against the diocese and Monsignor Drake Shafer that Shafer abused him when he was a member of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fort Madison in 1972 and 1973.

St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Joseph's churches in Fort Madison consolidated in 1996.

Jolene and Glen Trenkamp, both 44, of rural Clinton County also knew Janssen. The couple have been members of St. Joseph's of Sugar Creek since they were children and still attend the small country church, even though membership has dwindled to about 100 families. There were 28 people at a quiet evening Mass on Sunday.

The Sugar Creek church, about 25 miles northwest of Clinton, is where two former altar boys allege they were abused in the 1960s. One Clinton County man sued the diocese and Janssen in July, and another Clinton County man filed suit in September against the diocese, Janssen and Bass.

Glen Trenkamp said he heard nothing about priests having sexual contact with children while he was growing up in Sugar Creek. "I looked up to him as a good person," he said of Janssen.

Jolene Trenkamp said parishioners trust the diocese to send reputable priests to serve their parishes. If the diocese knew about abuse and shuffled accused priests to new churches, the diocese should be held accountable, she said.

"We expected to trust the priests. You don't expect they will send you a pedophile," she said.

Parishioners in Fort Madison and Sugar Creek said they think some people filing suits are doing so for the money.

"I've never been for this handing out cash," said Tom Stellern, 65, of Fort Madison. The president of the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, Stellern said he does not understand how lawsuits are viable for actions alleged to have occurred 30 to 40 years ago. "You can ruin someone's reputation based on an accusation. If you pay it out, he's guilty. They need to guard against that," Stellern said.

His daughter, 31-year-old Denise DeRoss of suburban Chicago, said during a visit Sunday that the Catholic Church must follow up on all allegations. "There are people who have valid cases and something unforgivable has happened. But it brings along so many other people who say, `I'll go along with that.' It diminishes what happened to the real people," De Ross said. "The church has to show they are treating this as an issue."

Jolene Trenkamp said no matter how the lawsuits are handled by the diocese, each priest will face judgment in heaven.

"They are accountable for their sins," she said.

[Reporter Erin Jordan can be reached at (319) 351-6527 or]


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.