Iowa Church Officials for Years Hid Allegations of Sexual Abuse

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
May 25, 2004

Iowa Catholic Church leaders for more than 40 years kept secret repeated allegations of sexual abuse by the Rev. James Janssen while they moved him from job to job.

Janssen, 81, accused in numerous lawsuits of molesting boys, was recommended for defrocking earlier this year.

Documents in Scott County District Court show that the bishop of Davenport and other priests, including a future bishop of Des Moines, worried greatly about public disclosure of the accusations as early as 1958, yet continued to allow Janssen to work with boys until 1996. He was a Boy Scout chaplain as late as 1990.

Church watchdogs say it is a pattern common around the country, made public only in the past three years as numerous cases emerged of sexual abuse by priests.

"It is consoling to know that no general notoriety has arisen, and I pray none may result," then-Davenport Bishop Ralph L. Hayes wrote in 1958, after three years of allegations, including that Janssen had been caught in "highly inappropriate acts" with two boys at the Newton YMCA.

At the same time, Monsignor Maurice J. Dingman, who 10 years later would become bishop of the Des Moines Diocese, vowed to keep secret the information about Janssen.

Sworn to secrecy and avoiding embarrassment

"I, Maurice J. Dingman, chancellor of the diocese of Davenport, having before me the Holy Bible which I touch with my hand . . . do hereby swear that I will maintain secrecy regarding all facts of the case," documents say.

In 1961, a priest wrote to the diocese that he was worried an angry mother would call police, but the priest thought "the police would find it difficult to make the boys talk because Janssen has them intimidated."

Of that case, Dingman, who was second in command of the Davenport Diocese, wrote to Bishop Hayes that, if the mother reported Janssen to police, "the matter could break in the papers and become nationally known."

Within months, Hayes reassigned Janssen from Davenport to Fort Madison.

Church authorities did not ignore the allegations, which started in the mid-1950s. At different times, Janssen was placed on leave, briefly suspended, ordered to stay out of Newton, to never go into a YMCA, to stop picking up boys in his car, and to stay away from swimming pools. But he continued to lead unsuspecting congregations, taking boys on trips and overseeing Boy Scout groups.

Janssen, who lives at a Davenport retirement home for priests, is accused in nine lawsuits of abuse, which he denies. The new account of the allegations and the church's responses were turned over by the church as part of those cases, with some of the material found in a locked safe in the basement of the diocese's offices.

The Davenport diocese in February reported on child sexual abuse by priests over the last 50 years and said it would ask the Vatican to defrock Janssen and four other priests. Bishop William Franklin apologized for any harm resulting from sexual abuse by clergy.

"May God's grace and strength be with all victims," Franklin said in February. "I'm sorry for any suffering you experienced and continue to experience because of betrayed trust."

But church officials and Janssen are fighting the lawsuits involving Janssen and other priests, arguing that they were filed after too many years passed.

Church attorney Rand Wonio said the cases must be defended because plaintiffs seeking millions of dollars in damages have refused to settle. "We have to assume that we are fighting for survival of the diocese," he said.

The Davenport Diocese's actions described in court papers were common around the nation, said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who chaired a review board formed by U.S. Catholic bishops to address the child sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church since 2001.

"The tragedy is that the experience in Iowa is not dissimilar to what occurred in a multitude of dioceses" around the nation, Keating said.

"Too frequently bishops made decisions thinking with their heads instead of their hearts as they sought to avoid embarrassment," Keating said. "They cared more for the steady stream of financial support from the laity and the reputation of the church than for the ravaged and frightened souls of children."

The Rev. Robert J. Silva, National Federation of Priests' Councils president, believes the bishops' actions should be placed in the cultural context of the United States at the time. The trauma caused by child sexual abuse was not known.

"This kind of behavior was seen by many as something best handled privately without public notoriety whether it happened in families or in the church," Silva said. "Discipline was tempered by respect for the priest's conversion of the heart, to be filled with grace, to turn away from sin, to change their life and not do it again.

"The bishops did not understand the psychological slavery of the priests' compulsions and obsessions."

Church officials in the mid-1950s referred Janssen to a psychologist for treatment, but ignored the counselor's recommendation that the priest be closely overseen by a "spiritual director, one who can act almost as a father figure."

"The combination of secrecy and arrogance is lethal in these cases," said Charles Kenney, co-author with James Muller of "Keep the Faith, Change the Church: The Battle of Catholics for the Soul of Their Church."

"Why not follow the psychologist's recommendations?" Kenney asked. "The bishops were infected with the disease of clericalism and their hubris was demonstrated by the belief that those in the priesthood knew better than other people. Their arrogance was a poison that caused otherwise well-meaning, intelligent people to make horrendous decisions."

The bishops who dealt with Janssen -Hayes; his successor, Gerald F. O'Keefe; and Dingman -are dead.

Dingman was bishop in Des Moines from 1968 to 1986, and Janssen was not in his diocese when he was a bishop. The Rev. Ed Pfeffer, who was chancellor under Dingman, said, "None of us knew about pedophilia, that it was a disease."

'Under obedience' and regulations

In time, Pfeffer said, "Dingman recognized we were dealing with something that could not be solved by giving the priest another chance. I wish he had been able to live on, because he would have looked back and been remorseful."

Hayes kept detailed notes of his efforts to turn Janssen around. An undated memo from Janssen's file, believed to have been written in the early 1960, criticizes the priest's conduct, including frequently swimming and wrestling with boys, organizing smoking parties, picking up kids at teen dances when not wearing priestly garb, wrestling and hugging Boy Scouts, and taking boys of weak character to drive-in movies. The diocesan documents report Janssen organized trips to Chicago and Florida, from which allegations of abuse later arose.

Hayes' handwritten notes of a Sept. 10, 1960, meeting with Janssen show the priest denied all the allegations. Hayes placed Janssen "under obedience" and forbade him from having boys riding with him in his car at any time for any reason, or from taking boys to any cabin or cottage.

"If you at any time disregard these injunctions, it will be necessary for me to order you to sell your automobile and compose appropriate canonical penalties," Hayes wrote.

Yet in 1961, after a short stint as co-pastor at St. Mary's Parish in Davenport, Hayes reassigned Janssen as co-pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Fort Madison. In 1967, Janssen was moved to St. Joseph Parish in Sugar Creek, in 1979 he was moved to St. Anthony parish in Davenport and in 1980 to Saints Philip and James parish in Grand Mound.

Lawsuits filed in Scott and Clinton County district courts allege that Janssen's abuse continued in Fort Madison, Sugar Creek and Grand Mound, although no diocesan records acknowledge sexual impropriety for that period of time.

"Bishop Hayes kept everything," said Wonio, the diocese's attorney. "Bishop Gerald F. O'Keefe didn't put a lot of things on paper."

However, Bobbi Martin, a Loras College employee, in an affidavit said that she and two other parish members met with Vicar General Michael Morrissey in 1983 to report inappropriate activities by Janssen while he was pastor at Grand Mound.

In Martin's view, the cover-up continued. "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.

The diocese has argued in court that under Iowa law, it had no legal duty to inform parishes of past sexual misconduct by priests.

"When you start to get into what kind of supervision a bishop should exercise over an individual priest and how he should be supervised, you start to get into First Amendment territory," Wonio said.

[For a timeline of allegations and church actions involving the Rev. James Janssen, see]


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