Defrocks Embattled Priest
By Todd Ruger
September 24, 2004
Allegations of sexual misconduct with boys followed the Rev. James Janssen to numerous eastern Iowa parishes during his 56-year career with the Catholic Diocese of Davenport.
Those same allegations — which prompted two suspensions for treatment in the 1950s and 10 sex abuse lawsuits in two states since May 2003 — now have caused the Vatican to remove Janssen from the priesthood.
Pope John Paul II dismissed James Janssen “from the clerical state” less than two months after Bishop William Franklin requested the action, diocese officials said Thursday.
Returning an ordained priest to the status of a layman, also known as defrocking or laicization, is the most severe penalty that can be inflicted on a priest, the diocese said.
Diocese spokesman David Montgomery said church leaders believe Janssen is the first priest to be involuntarily laicized in the Davenport Diocese.
Franklin, in a news release issued Thursday, said he again expresses “deep sorrow and apology for all who have been harmed.”
“I continue to pray for healing and hope that our request and the Holy Father’s decision will help facilitate the healing process,” he said.
Craig Levien, the Davenport attorney who represents 20 men who allege sexual abuse by Janssen from 20 to 50 years ago in Iowa parishes stretching from Fort Madison to Grand Mound, said his clients are grateful for the symbolic action.
“It is very important there be the public recognition these are not holy men or spiritual leaders,” Levien said of Janssen and four other priests whom Franklin asked the Vatican to defrock.
However, “We think this should have happened 45 years ago when the first report of abuse was made,” Levien said.
Effect of defrocking
Before the pope’s July 28 decree, Janssen already had been ordered not to perform any public priestly duties in a letter from Franklin that also went to all diocesan priests, the diocese has said.
Montgomery said Janssen will continue to live at St. Vincent’s Center, located at the diocese headquarters, and pay monthly rent.
Janssen does not receive a paycheck or financial assistance from the diocese, which cannot force him to live in any place, he said.
“Because Mr. Janssen is now a lay person, he is no longer under the jurisdiction of the bishop,” Montgomery said.
The diocese cannot legally interfere with any of Janssen’s retirement benefits because they are totally vested under federal law, the diocese said.
At St. Anthony’s Parish in Davenport, where Janssen went to school, presided over his first Mass and worked for a year in 1979, Monsignor W. Robert Schmidt said he plans to express sorrow for any sort of misbehavior or actions contrary to the church.
“My response will be reaffirming and assure them that the sacraments Father Janssen may have performed are efficacious and valid in the eyes of God,” Schmidt said. “I think this is most unfortunate.”
Schmidt said Janssen was a good student and a very outgoing type of priest and person.
Janssen could not be reached for comment Thursday by the QUAD-CITY TIMES.
His attorney, Edward Wehr, did not return a phone message left Thursday by the Times.
Don Green of DeWitt, Iowa, whose lawsuit alleges sexual abuse by Janssen in 1982, asked for Janssen to be defrocked eight years ago, his wife said Thursday.
“We felt it important he not hold the title of the priesthood because as a priest he was given certain opportunity and there was a perception about him,” Ann Green said.
“We were told, ‘Once you’re a priest you’re always a priest,’” she said of their efforts to change the church from the inside before Don Green filed the lawsuit. “They covered up this action for the last 50 years.”
Speed of defrocking
The recommendation to remove Janssen from the priesthood went through less than two months after it was sent — at the same time other bishops have complained about the length of time taken by the Vatican to work through the laicization requests.
Defrocking requests are still pending for the Rev. Francis Bass, the Rev. William Wiebler, the Rev. Frank Martinez and the Rev. Richard Poster.
Diocese attorney Rand Wonio said it would be speculation as to why the request to defrock Janssen came back when it did. At the time the requests were sent, Wonio said Franklin requested the Vatican handle some of the defrocking requests in an expedited, summary fashion.
Some requests contained information about offenses egregious enough to perhaps warrant defrocking without going through full church law procedures, he said at that time.
Levien said Janssen’s defrocking does not protect the children of the community, pointing to a defrocked Illinois priest in Mercer County who is awaiting trial on felony charges he abused a neighbor child after he was defrocked.
Janssen has not been charged criminally because all the allegations are past the criminal statute of limitations.
“The reason we are unsafe is the diocese never reported his activities to the police,” Levien said of Janssen.
Todd Ruger can be contacted at (563) 383-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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