Rev. John F. Kinney

Bismarck Tribune
August 29, 1993

Eleven years after his installation as the fifth bishop of the quiet Roman Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, the Rev. John F. Kinney investigates a nationwide scandal that has shaken the 58 million-member church to the core of its faith. Headlines trumpet the offenses once shrouded in secrecy: Allegations of pedophilia have lodged against some 400 priests since 1984. Reportedly, 2,500 priests have molested 100,000 children over the past two decades. The air waves and news pages are full of the latest revelations.

Even in North Dakota. Chosen by his peers, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kinney heads a committee to lead the Roman Catholic Church out of the abyss. ""Bishop Kinney has a tremendous responsibility to help begin the process of healing and restoring a sense of confidence in Catholics and others about the nature of the priesthood," says Patrick Jordan, managing editor opinions journal of Catholic laypeople. ""But in terms of repairing a deeper doubt, that's going to take an awful long time for people to recover. That's more than one man can shoulder."Kinney, 56, refers to it as an illness, the sexual misconduct that stains the church's pristine image and scares some parishioners from talking with priests in private. Kinney's frankness is vital to the church's new mission. The church once treated abuse as a weakness or a moral failure, he says. ""Now we would say it's not a one-time occurrence. It goes right into the depth of the person, so help is needed." Bismarck's bishop since 1982, Kinney finds himself immersed in the church's damage control effort. In June, his fellow bishops appointed him to head the first committee on sexual abuse. The seven bishops will advise their peers on: Dealing with abusive priests; Helping victims; Screening out potential pedophiles from seminaries; Establishing safeguards against future abuse. How did a bishop from a small diocese acquire a post that has thrust him into the national spotlight? Kinney's colleagues say they chose him for his empathy, sensitivity and previous pastoral leadership. But as he embarks on his mission guaranteed to bring close scrutiny by the news media all over the United States Kinney has problems brewing at home.

Byline: national standards, North Dakota's 175,000 Roman Catholics have complained little about sex abuse by priests. But one North Dakota victim, and possibly more, will come forward, a Minnesota attorney says. St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson and Fergus Falls, Minn., attorney Morrie Kerschner are preparing to file a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse against the Rev. David Wild of West Fargo on behalf of a North Dakota plaintiff. The attorneys already represent a Minnesota plaintiff who filed suit against Wild for an incident that allegedly occurred in 1966. A Hennepin County man known as John Doe charged Wild fondled him in the priest's living quarters at St. Bernard's Church in Oriska. Wild resigned in August 1992 as priest at Holy Cross Church in West Fargo. The case has yet to go to trial. Statewide, four victims, one of them from Bismarck, joined the Chicago-based Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests in the past 18 months. All SNAP members say they have been abused as youngsters. Kinney says the scandals cost the church credibility, vocations, priestly morale and tens of millions of dollars in settlements. Nestled in an armchair in his plush Bismarck office, he insists he brings no special expertise, and once never dreamed the church would be talking of a sex abuse policy. But he accepts the challenge, shaken by the personal stories he's heard. ""The painful listening to the stories of the victims of sexual abuse is a most difficult thing," he says. ""Part of that is we have to sit down and listen to the priests who have been perpetrators, too, because those are equally sad stories." Kinney wants bishops meeting face-to-face with victims. In a very difficult but productive meeting, he listened to such a victims group in Chicago in mid-July. ""I learned this process will be slow. I learned the deep hurt and scars that go along with sexual abuse. I also learned even people who are deeply hurt, love and want to be a part of the church." Kinney's committee intends to expand screening of both priest candidates and lay workers. In the Bismarck diocese, seminarians already undergo psychiatric tests and personal interviews. ""We have to make sure they are not coming in with any baggage from the past," Kinney says. Of the more controversial issues to be examined is whether a rehabilitated abuser can be reassigned to the ministry again. Kinney thinks some of them might still find a role in the church. ""I can never assign a person in ministry to a parish that I know has abused children," he says. ""But I refuse to say that anybody who has been involved in sexual abuse of any kind can never be reinstated." Some critics blame clerical celibacy for the pedophilia and say it should be abolished. Kinney disagrees, saying the issue includes singles and married people, Catholics and non-Catholics. It's anti-Catholic bigotry to blame celibacy for the problems of the church or priesthood, Kinney says, echoing the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley (an author and priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago) statement in the Aug. 16 Newsweek. Kinney says he has helped place church ministers in therapy because of allegations during his tenure as bishop. But he declines to discuss specific incidents for reasons of confidentiality. He knows of no lawsuit alleging misconduct or abuse within the Bismarck diocese. Court records confirm that. Despite the battering the church has taken in recent months, Kinney refuses to believe its reputation has been irretrievably damaged. ""I think we bear some scars. I also think we've learned that maybe we've made some mistakes. This has been pained grace for us. My hope is that we can come out of this stronger and better."


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