Timeline of Abuse Allegations

Des Moines Register
May 25, 2004

Note from This useful summary by the Des Moines Register describes many of the diocesan documents that have been publicly filed in cases involving Rev. James M. Janssen. It was originally published with a 5/25/04 article by Register reporter Shirley Ragsdale, "Iowa Church Officials for Years Hid Allegations of Sexual Abuse."

In order to make the timeline even more useful, has linked it to the complete documents that it quotes from and describes. Click on a highlighted link to view the whole document.

We have also corrected some inaccurate quotations in [ ], and added some comments and clarifications in { }.

Court documents obtained by The Des Moines Register detail allegations of sexual misconduct by priests James Janssen, Francis Bass and Theodore Anthony Geerts, and the Davenport Diocese's response. The documents were drawn from material obtained from the diocese by attorneys for people who have sued alleging abuse, some of which were found in a locked safe in the basement of the diocese's office.

The documentation of Janssen's career thins in the last years of Bishop Ralph L. Hayes tenure and after Bishop Gerald F. O'Keefe was appointed on Oct. 20, 1966.

According to Rand Wonio, the Davenport diocese attorney, Hayes "kept everything" and O'Keefe wasn't much of a paper pusher.

The first warning letter was placed in Janssen's file soon after his ordination in 1948.

March 26, 1948 - Letter from Kenrick Seminary director of students {Rev. Marion L. Gibbons} warns Bishop Ralph Hayes that Janssen must be placed under supervision because he has "a dangerous spirit of duplicity." {The point about supervision is actually quoted in this letter, from an earlier 3/13/48 letter written by the seminary rector, Very Rev. Joseph P. Donovan.}

July 14, 1953 - The Rev. Maurice J. Dingman, the future bishop of Des Moines who then was chancellor of the Davenport Diocese, writes to Hayes reporting that the priest from Fairfield {Rev. Orville F. DeCoursey, pastor of St. Mary's in Fairfield} called him reporting that Janssen is "in a [very] distraught state of mind" and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, complaining of loneliness. Janssen, who was pastor {actually assistant} at East Pleasant Plain, said he could not eat or sleep. Later in the day, Janssen met with Dingman and said he loathed the country and that the place was getting to him. "He gets so nervous that he wants to scream, and he did just that once. He says that he just has to have people around himself." Janssen's primary interest is with youth. "He wants to be with them; he wants them around[. There must be something going on]," wrote Dingman, who was second in command in the diocese. Dingman observes that Janssen lacks maturity and "because of lack of prudence there is always the danger of him leaving." {Rev. P. C. Wetzstein, who is mentioned in Dingman's letter, was then pastor of St. Joseph's in East Pleasant Plain and Janssen's superior.

Aug. 1, 1953 - Hayes writes to Janssen, asking him to bear in mind the points he stressed in their conversation, "regarding hearing confessions--greater attention to the manner in which you say Holy Mass--the matter of going swimming--the necessity of preparing your sermon and studying your theology." If Janssen follows the bishop's advice, "you will be able to do good work for our Lord, and you will be happy in that work." Hayes says that he will pray that the young priest will enter loyally and zealously into his assignment.

Sept. 30, 1954 - A handwritten memo from Hayes notes that when Janssen was in his fourth year at St. Ambrose Academy, he "solicited to acts of impurity" but it has not been repeated. Hayes also writes that "the attempt in question had nothing to do with sacrament of penance. He came to me at the behest of his confessor. This is the first accusation of this nature brought to my attention." {Not correctly described in the Des Moines Register timeline. According to Hayes's note, the incident took place in August 1954, when Janssen was already a priest. So it was the victim, not Janssen, who was a fourth-year student at St. Ambrose Academy, and it was the victim who went to Bishop Hayes.}

Oct. 14, 1955 - Dingman writes to Hayes reporting information from a Burlington priest {Rev. Henry J. Corcoran, then pastor of St. Paul's in Burlington}. The Burlington police chief had received inquiries from Newton and Clinton police regarding Janssen regarding "a morals charge." Dingman reports the Burlington priest believed something should be done before "the blow[-up] comes and the church suffers." The priest heard rumors earlier, but dismissed them as having no foundation. {Janssen had served at St. Paul's in Burlington (1948-50), St. Irenaeus in Clinton (1950-53), and Sacred Heart in Newton (1953-56). During 1953, he also served briefly at St. Joseph's in East Pleasant Plain and spent a few months on leave.}

Oct. 21, 1955 - A Newton priest {Rev. Thomas J. McCann, then pastor of Sacred Heart in Newton and Janssen's superior there} writes Hayes acknowledging rumors and suggests that he would prefer that the bishop investigate Janssen's activities.

Nov. 2, 1956 - The secretary of the Newton YMCA Board writes Hayes reporting, "Several years ago, our General Secretary reported ... he [had] found Father Janssen in [the] handball court with two boys in a very improper activity.... The Board instructed the Secretary to prohibit [Father] Janssen from the YMCA. It was felt [that] this represented a very serious community problem."

Nov. 2, 1956 - A letter from the Newton YMCA general secretary to a Newton priest {McCann, Janssen's pastor at Sacred Heart in Newton} reports he was approached by a Clinton YMCA official asking if Janssen was doing parish work. "He informed me that Father Janssen ... had been moved out (of Clinton) as a result of homosexual tendencies."

Undated - An unsigned letter refers to an arrest in Des Moines with boys who were shoplifting and attending midnight movies. The letter tells Janssen to "A = Never [to] take off collar; B = Never [to] enter any Y, and C = [To] leave Newton immediately." {This document was not a letter, and it was not addressed to Janssen. It is an internal note on the bishop's stationery.}

Nov. 9, 1956 - Hayes sends Janssen a letter placing him on indefinite leave, Nov. 13, and telling him to "leave the Diocese immediately or just as soon as [possible]." The bishop encloses a check for $100 to assist Janssen in his initial expenses. In December, Janssen was permitted to enroll at Loyola University during his leave.

April 26, 1957 - Hayes writes to the Rev. William Devlin, Janssen's doctor, asking for a report and saying he was eager to do anything he could to help straighten Janssen out.

May 31, 1957 - Letter from Loyola University official {Rev. William J. Devlin, S.J., consulting psychiatrist at the Loyola Center for Guidance and Psychological Service} reports to the bishop that he was "forced to refer [Father] to one of the clinical psychologists at Loyola. He definitely will need psychotherapy."

Aug. 24, 1957 - Loyola psychologist J.V.P. Stewart writes to the bishop that Janssen did not receive adequate guidance from his peers. "He went time after time to confession to two priests, [having] the same matter to confess ([i.e.,] masturbation and [the problem of having some relationship with [a] male[, this of course not as often as masturbation]) and no word of counsel or spiritual direction was given." Yet, the doctor gave Janssen a qualified good report. "It is urgent and essential that he have assigned [to] him particularly, a mature, understanding, spiritual director; one who can act almost [one would say,] as a father figure."

Aug. 12, 1958 - Stewart again writes Hayes, checking up on Janssen. {Stewart asked whether Hayes had found a spiritual director for Janssen.}

Aug. 18, 1958 - Hayes replies, saying he gave Janssen a temporary assignment as the pastor in Holbrook. "I haven't assigned any particular priest as his spiritual director." {Hayes does not actually specify the place of Janssen's assignment. It was St. Michael's in Holbrook, where Janssen briefly replaced Rev. John J. Morrissey. At the time, Morrissey was the diocesan chaplain of the Boy Scouts. Curiously, Janssen would succeed Morrissey as director of the Boy Scouts years later, on 7/24/80.}

Sept. 29, 1958 - The pastor at St. Isaac Jogues Rectory in Hinsdale, Ill. {Rev. Martin A. Henehan of the Joliet diocese}, writes Bishop Hayes. He encloses letters addressed to Janssen and a young boy from the parish where Janssen served a year, working with teens and Boy Scouts. {The letters are by the boy and Janssen.} The sexually crude letters had been read by the boy's "heartbroken mother" and given to the pastor. "After much pondering over the principles of fraternal correction ... I have decided this is a matter that should be presented to your attention." The boy's father {Henehan writes} is convinced that "this horrible thing has not spread to other boys in the parish - thank God!" {Henehan also writes that Bishop Hayes knew of Janssen's assignment to St. Isaac Jogues in Hinsdale.}

Oct. 1, 1958 - Hayes replies, stating he was shocked by the disclosure. "It is consoling to know that no general notoriety has arisen, and I pray none may result." He writes he will take up the matter with Janssen "in a day or so."

Oct. 3, 1958 - A letter from Hayes to Janssen suspended the priest indefinitely, "for grave reasons known to me. "

Oct. 3, 1958 - A document signed by Dingman and the bishop. "I, Maurice J. Dingman, chancellor of the diocese of Davenport, having before me the Holy Bible which I touch with my hand, having witnessed by my signature the document of suspension ex informata conscientia issued by the Most Reverend Ralph L. Hayes, Bishop of Davenport, against Reverend James Janssen, a priest of the said diocese of Davenport, do hereby swear that I will maintain secrecy regarding all facts of the case."

Oct. 3, 1958 - Handwritten notes from Hayes regarding his interview with Janssen say, "He confessed his guilt." The bishop recommends counseling, but did not order Janssen to go. "I was not too favorably impressed with his [general] attitude." Shortly thereafter, Janssen went to the Abbey of Our Lady of New Melleray {in the Dubuque archdiocese} for counseling.

Dec. 11, 1958 - Janssen writes Hayes from the Dubuque monastery where he was spending his suspension, pleading for mercy and begging to be able to offer Mass again. "First of all, I am truly repentant of my past sins. Again, I am sorry for those relapses in sin which I admitted to you at your home. Only God knows how sorry I am." According to diocese records, Hayes wrote the abbott at New Melleray {Rt. Rev. Dom Philip O'Connor}, asking if Janssen had made sufficient progress that he could be recalled to the diocese.

Jan. 17, 1959 - The abbot at New Melleray writes Hayes giving Janssen a favorable report. He expresses his earnest hope and prayer that Janssen has learned his lesson.

Jan. 19, 1959 - Hayes appoints Janssen as administrator, a temporary position, at St. Patrick's in Delmar.

Jan. 22, 1959 - Handwritten note from Hayes addressing the Delmar appointment with the provisions that Janssen have no contact with an unnamed {named but redacted} boy in Illinois and that he refrain from visiting Clinton and Newton.

Sept. 4, 1959 - A handwritten note by Hayes regarding a conference with Janssen, in which the priest apparently admitted he had been picking up boys and taking them to a swimming pool and outdoor movies. "Strict orders given to him never again, at any time, under any circumstances, to pick up boys in his auto." Disobedience [would] lead to severe punishment.

Dec. 28, 1959 - Letter from Dingman to Hayes about a professor at St. Ambrose {College} observing "Janssen with one hand on {document redacted} boy's head and rubbing the front part of the boy's body." The incident was also witnessed by a woman and a Catholic nun. Dingman ventures that the professor is "an unimpeachable witness." {The incident took place at St. Mary's church in Davenport.}

Undated - Memo from Janssen's file cites improper activities {the memo says "charges made"} including frequent swimming and wrestling with boys at the park, going around in a pair of Bermuda shorts or swimming trunks when picking up youths in his car for swimming, organizing smoking parties for seventh and eighth graders, stating disregard for custom and teaching in the parish regarding dancing parties for grade school children, picking up youths at teen hops when he wasn't wearing priestly garb, wrestling and hugging Boy Scouts, taking boys of weak character to drive-in movies and swimming. {The movie mentioned in the memo dates it to 1959.}

Sept. 8, 1960 - Dingman writes Hayes reporting that a doctor approached him saying that "some mother had come to him in tears about her son [who was] spending too much time with [Father] Janssen." The mother drove to the store with her son and Janssen sitting in the back seat. She thought it strange that Janssen would take this boy on his lap, as there was plenty of room in the back seat and it was a hot day. "It seems {Dingman wrote} that Father Janssen has access to a cottage somewhere. This also worried the mother."

Sept. 10, 1960 - Handwritten notes by Hayes about a meeting with Janssen. The priest denied ever taking boys in his auto unless accompanied by parent, denied taking the boys to an Optimist Club cabin without parental or adult supervision {next to these denials Hayes has written in Latin "Is it really true?"} and said he had nothing to do with dances for grade school children.

Sept. 10, 1960 - Letter of warning from Hayes to Janssen, placing him "under obedience." Janssen is forbidden to have boys riding with him in his car at any time for any reason; forbidden to take boys to any cabin or cottage; forbidden to encourage dances of any kind for grade school or high school boys and girls. "If you at any time disregard these injunctions, it will be necessary for me to order you to sell your automobile and [to impose] appropriate canonical penalties."

Dec. 16, 1960 - Typed memo by Hayes outlining complaints received about Janssen, including one from a mother of a 14-year-old boy who was an eighth-grader at St. Mary's school {in Davenport}. She caught Janssen and her son in the kitchen with their arms around one another. She later found a "dirty" note on the floor. She complained that Janssen took her son for rides in his car and reported that Janssen took four other boys with him to Chicago and that he took two boys with him to Florida. Another woman complained she found Janssen with one of her sons alone in a room in a compromising position. "Mrs. (deleted) was very much upset; she is not bitter against Father Janssen; she pities him and thinks he is not responsible for his actions."

Dec. 19, 1960 - Handwritten note by Hayes regarding interview with Janssen. The priest admitted disobeying Hayes' orders but denied he had acted improperly. Conclusion, "I do not know whether [or not] to believe him - his past record is against him." {Hayes also writes that Janssen claimed "he was falsely accused."}

Feb. 10, 1961 - A letter from Dingman to Hayes reporting a priest from St. Mary parish in Davenport {Rev. James J. Hopkins, pastor of St. Mary's in Davenport and Janssen's superior there} was worried that Mrs. (deleted) would go to police and have action taken against Janssen. A nun at St. Mary School "is also alarmed that the police might be brought in[to] the case." Dingman writes that if the mother reports Janssen, "the matter could break in the papers and become nationally known." Hopkins said he though the police would find it difficult to make the boys talk because Janssen has them intimidated.

June 14, 1961 - Hayes relieved Janssen from his assignment at St. Mary parish and reassigned him at St. Joseph parish in Fort Madison. According to the diocese, the only complaints of record while he was pastor in Fort Madison were raised during an estate dispute. The individuals protesting Janssen's share of the estate alleged "wild rumors, having boys to the house in Davenport." The estate was settled out of court.

Documentation on Janssen falls off at this point, without explanation. However, a number of lawsuits filed over the last three years in Scott and Clinton counties allege abuse to minor boys by Janssen while he was pastor at Fort Madison {St. Joseph's, 1961-67, see for example: 1, 2, 3, and 4}, Sugar Creek {St. Joseph's, 1967-79, see for example, 5 and 6}, and Grand Mound {Sts. Philip and James, 1980-90, see for example 7}. {Between Sugar Creek and Grand Mound, Janssen served for a year at St. Anthony's in Davenport, where he was co-pastor with Msgr. Thomas J. Feeney, who was then vicar general of the diocese. For the affidavit of a victim abused in the St. Anthony's rectory, see 5 again.}

Feb. 1, 1967 - Janssen appointed as pastor at St. Joseph parish at Sugar Creek. He was also given an additional appointment to St. Mary church in Bryant from August 1972 to October 1978.

November 1977 - Notes in the diocesan file record a meeting with Bryant parishioners complaining about Janssen's Masses and money concerns. There were also allegations that Janssen taught children to be dishonest, to jump fences at movies and steal from pop machines.

September 1979 - Janssen assigned as co-pastor at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Davenport.

September 1980 - Janssen reassigned to Saints Philip and James parish in Grand Mound. In an affidavit filed April 12, 2004, Bobbi R. Martin, a former member of Saints Philip and James parish in Grand Mound swears that she and two others complained to Vicar General Michael Morrissey in 1983 about Janssen's inappropriate behavior. "He did not appear interested in what we had to say. To my knowledge, no actions were taken against Father Janssen as a result of our specific complaints," Martin wrote.

Jan. 13, 1988 - Letter from Morrissey to Janssen stating that James Wells, the priest's nephew, had visited and "told me his life story, [or] at least [a portion] of it. Rumors, which I have heard for a number of years, are one thing; direct allegations are another." Morrissey warns he will act immediately on charges of misconduct by any priest.

July 23, 1990 - The priest at St. Mary's Parish in Burlington writes Bishop Gerald O'Keefe, documenting a significant history of abuse by Janssen he had received in recent months. {The timeline reproduces an error from some court filings. The letter was written by Rev. Robert T. McAleer, then pastor of St. Mary's in Fort Madison. There is no St. Mary's in Burlington.} The letter documents the names of three other priests who have information regarding Janssen's improper sexual activities. The priests are fearful that if the information became public in Fort Madison, it would "affect the three of us." The report includes allegations that Janssen was "sent home from a national boy scout gathering at William & Mary College." The reporting family wants the following action taken: a) Janssen "should be out of the priesthood and [would] not [be] permitted to retire or quit carrying with him the dignity of the priesthood or what it might avail him to. He cannot be just turned loose to continue this activity. b) That he acknowledge he has a problem. c) That he seek treatment. d) That he have no contact with the [redacted] Family. e) That this not be covered up by just re-assigning him."

{References to other priests are somewhat difficult to follow in the timeline summary of McAleer's letter. Some clarifications:
* McAleer heard about Janssen's activities from two priests who served as hospital chaplains. Fr. David F. Hitch had recently been pastor of St. Joseph's in Hills, and at the time of McAleer's letter, had just become pastor of St. Thomas More in Iowa City. In the 1980s, Hitch had been a chaplain at the State University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, and as pastor at St. Thomas More, he served as chaplain at Oakdale Sanatorium in Iowa City. Rev. Dennis C. Martin was chaplain at Mercy Hospital and the VA Hospital in Iowa City.
* McAleer was worried about revelations regarding Janssen's misdeeds in Fort Madison, and had discussed this concern with his two fellow Fort Madison pastors: Very Rev. John M. Hyland of St. Joseph's and Rev. Robert M. Amborn of Sacred Heart.
* Another Fort Madison priest who is mentioned in this letter is Rev. Leonard M. Boyle, who was pastor at St. Joseph's in Fort Madison and Janssen's superior there. When Boyle retired in 1966, Janssen was briefly made administrator at this church, before being transferred in 1967 to St. Joseph's in Sugar Creek. For a victim's fond memories of the "kindly" Boyle, see A, para. 4.
* McAleer says that Janssen was alleged to have viewed stag movies with victims in a rectory in Farmington. This was St. Boniface, where Rev. Theodore A. (Tony) Geerts was pastor 1962-69. For abuse at this rectory, see B, C, and A para. 9-11 and 17.}

July 31, 1990 - O'Keefe writes Janssen, accepting his resignation as Diocesan Chaplain for Scouting and granting indefinite leave of absence for health reasons. Janssen is allowed to say private Mass. He was to receive a regular priest's pension until age 70 and then receive retirement benefits from the Priests Aid Society.

April 1, 1996 - Morrissey writes Janssen about "further allegations of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy" against him. "The matter will not be pursued further if you cease any public activity of a Church nature." Janssen is asked to immediately cease contact with a teenage boy who is a client of Genesis Medical Center; cease serving Mass for other priests. "Both you and the Church are fortunate that this is not being pursued in a more public forum."

May 24, 1996 - Morrissey sends letters to all active priests in the Davenport Diocese notifying them that Janssen is not available for fill-in or substitute work or assisting them in other duties.

Feb. 5, 1997 - Bishop William E. Franklin writes a letter to Janssen defining his ministry under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines "Restoring Trust." Janssen may offer Mass privately, at another priest's funeral or funeral Mass for immediate relatives. He may attend clergy gatherings and make special-occasion requests to Vicar General Drake Shafer.

Aug. 4, 2000 - The Quad-City Times publishes a story about Janssen, then 78, and his efforts to be named the world's oldest lifeguard. Janssen was working as a lifeguard at the Davenport Outing Club and the Scott County Family Y. The story reports that swimming has been Janssen's passion since he was an Eagle Scout continuing during his years as a scout leader. It reports he dabbled in lifeguarding all during his career as a priest, including a stint in 1954 at a pool in Newton.

Aug. 30, 2000 - Franklin issues a Precept, a severe sanction, against Janssen because allegations have again been raised that the priest engaged in immoral sexual activities that violate clerical celibacy and in violation of the diocese sexual misconduct policy. Janssen is ordered to refrain from all contact with minors, cease work in places of employment where contact with people younger than 18 is likely to occur and "to [further] avoid all places and situations that, from past experience, have been occasions of serious temptation in the areas of sexual morality."

"Whatever the full truth of the alleged behaviors, in fact scandal has arisen among numerous members of the diocesan community."

Feb. 25, 2004 - Bishop Franklin holds a press conference and reports the extent of child sexual abuse by priests since 1950 and announces he will ask the Vatican to defrock Janssen and the Rev. Francis Bass, the Rev. Frank Martinez, the Rev. William Wiebler and the Rev. Richard Poster.

Note: We have also posted the original version of this timeline, without our links, comments, and corrections. In our linked version, we have corrected minor typos silently; substantive corrections are marked with [ ].


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