Bishop Accountability

Parish Letter Seeks Healing for Victims and Church
(First of two parts)

By Mary Rueter, Managing Editor
DeWitt Observer
January 24, 2004

The power of the written word — in this case, a letter — has never been more evident than it was Sunday, Jan. 18, when the Most Rev. William Franklin, Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, paid a visit to the Grand Mound parish.

For nearly two years, members of SS Philip and James Parish had waited for more information about a complaint of sexual abuse lodged against a former priest and for assistance in healing their hurting parish.

“The only real information we have received has been through the media,” Diana Scott, a member of the parish council said.

Sunday, however, after being tipped off by someone outside the parish that a letter composed by the parish council would be sent to him and the media, Franklin showed up at Mass unannounced.

Parish council president Neil Mason said the appearance of the bishop took the council by surprise. “Our original plan was to write the letter, present it to the parish and then send it to the bishop and the media.”

Council members agree it probably would have been best if things had gone as planned. Nevertheless, they went ahead and read the letter (see adjacent copy) at the end of Mass. The reading was followed by applause. “We were surprised,” Mason says.

Several members of the congregation immediately commented on the diocese’ lack of response to the allegation of sexual abuse by their former priest, and the bishop responded briefly. Then the discussion was taken to a classroom, where the bishop faced many more questions from his flock.

“It started as confrontational, but it ended positively,” Scott noted.

The letter was written at the suggestion of a member of the family of Don Green, who has filed a civil law suit against Father James Janssen and the Davenport Diocese, alleging sexual abuse by Janssen when Green was a teenager. Parish council members were told a letter of support could help alleviate some of the pain over the issue.

“We decided to write the letter on behalf of the parish because we knew we were hurting, and we also knew it would give Don Green the compassion and support he needs from the parish,” Scott explained.

“Our victim is not a John Doe; he has a face,” Mason said in reference to seven other lawsuits which have been filed against Janssen and the diocese. “(Green) is a good citizen, a faithful church member and a respected member of the community.”

But neither his name nor Janssen’s was divulged when the bishop paid his first visit to Grand Mound in the spring of 2002.

Rather, he asked for other victims to come forward. He says no one did.

Mary Ann Hahn, another parish council member, speculates one reason no else stepped forward is they have left the parish. “A lot of people are no longer here. Maybe that’s why no one responded to him. I know for a fact some (victims) are not here any more.”

The parish council also believes the bishop created an aura of suspicion against all the priests who ever served the parish by not naming the one who was being accused.

“Some still did not know it was Father Janssen until the lawsuits were filed,” Scott said. “I began wondering, too, about the priests I did know.”

Council member Lisa Fox observed those who did not attend Mass that Sunday in 2002 never did receive the information in any other way.

Despite the bishop’s presence last Sunday morning, a vote of the parishioners on whether to send the letter was unanimous.

“It was not meant to be vindictive of the diocese or Catholicism,” Mason said. “The diocese is concentrating on victims — those who were abused, but we found our parish hurts. There is suspicion about what happened to children and grandchildren.”

Scott noted some people have said they wonder about their own children who have strayed so far from the church — and wonder why. They were not raised that way.”

“The letter was difficult to write,” Fox acknowledges, “but if it tells one person, ‘You are not alone,’ it might heal one wound.”

The letter was not written by an attorney or a priest, she reminded. “It was written by six people who care.”

Scott said she hopes the letter will help other victims to be comfortable in the parish and feel at home there.

The members of the council — whose names literally are drawn out of a hat —agree writing the letter was a difficult and emotional task. “It was very hard for us to challenge the bishop,” Fox said.

Scott commented she was raised before Vatican II and was taught to believe priests and bishops are God on Earth.

Mason, however, said he didn’t see the group’s action as courageous. Rather, he said it was an opportunity to see things are done right.

The group worked on the letter over the course of a month and four or five meetings with plenty of e-mails and revisions of the letter sent back and forth in the meantime.

“It was bad enough it was an emotional issue,” Fox said. “Then to put into words what 200 families feel and believe was an even bigger challenge, but we discovered spirituality in finding a voice of harmony.”

The council members were pleased with the final draft. “I’m glad we sent (the version) we did,” Mason said.

It was Fox who drew the short straw when the council tried to decide who should read the letter. Another member was ready to step up and help her if the task became too emotional, but Fox says as she began to read, “a sense of calm came over me that was not human.” She believes it was the Holy Spirit working within her.

During the dialog that followed Mass, the bishop was said to ask what the parish wanted him to do. “It was great of him to ask, but why didn’t he think of that before?” Mason wonders.

Damage has been done to the parish and there is no going back, the six council members say, but they can look to the future and work to create an atmosphere of reconciliation, healing and compassion.

They asked the bishop’s assistance in doing that. Mason said he expects Franklin to send a letter in response.

In the meantime, council members have done some brainstorming. Deb Olson would like to make the movie from “The VIRTUS” program available to everyone in the parish — not just those who are parents of young children. (VIRTUS is an awareness program aimed at protecting God’s children.) “It would be an eye opener,” she says.

Fox would like to make a victim assistance program available in Grand Mound. “Other dioceses have individuals in the community who don’t have a big title, like vicar or chancellor,” she said. Some even are victims themselves.

“We’re not necessarily encouraging victims to come to the parish council, but one does not need to be a victim to have a need to talk about it,” Fox added.

The parish also has not been told what will happen to Janssen, who has been living for many years at St. Vincent’s Center in Davenport. They were told he could be defrocked through a somewhat involved process.

“That’s something the parishioners indicated would be helpful in the healing process,” council member Dee Dee Banowetz said.

Mason added money also talks, “A handful of parishioners say they won’t give another cent to the church until this is settled.”

“I hope the bishop responds and has some ideas,” Fox said. “This is going to be an unfinished business item on parish council agendas for a long while.”


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