Bishop Removes Lemmon Priest

By Mary Garrigan
Rapid City Journal
May 29, 2002

After the "credible allegation" of sexual abuse of a minor more than 20 years ago, the Rev. Dennis Riss, pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lemmon, was removed from his pastoral duties as a Catholic priest last week, Bishop Blase Cupich of the Diocese of Rapid City said Thursday.

The accusation against Riss is that he had sexual contact with a 17-year-old male in the diocese in the early 1980s, before Riss entered the seminary or was ordained as a priest.

Cupich learned of the accusation on May 22 from the victim and his family, who were not identified.

Cupich spoke to Riss on May 23 and relieved him of his duties. He informed Riss' congregations at Lemmon, Morristown and Wautaga at Masses last Sunday of his removal from active ministry.

No criminal charges are expected, Cupich said.

Neither the victim nor his family intend to seek financial compensation from the diocese, he said. "The family has assured me that all they want is to bring this to our attention," he said. "The victim himself told me he has no intention of seeking compensation and, in fact, finds that distasteful."

The diocese offered no settlement. "We do not pay hush money," Cupich said. "People need to know that what is happening on the East Coast and in other dioceses is not happening in ours."

In keeping with the diocese's 10-year-old policy on the handling of sexual-abuse allegations, Riss will not return to public ministry as a priest in this diocese, Cupich said.

The bishop said the diocese is not aware of any allegations against Riss since he became a priest or since he entered the seminary.

Riss has left Lemmon but is still living in South Dakota. "He's entered a period of assessment and is receiving help from a local counselor," Cupich said.

Cupich believes the vast majority of Catholics in Lemmon support his decision to remove Riss. "They told me two things," Cupich said of an informational meeting held Sunday in Lemmon. "They said I did the right thing in removing him and that they were glad I leveled with them, that they were treated like adults and given the information."

Like many Catholics in Lemmon, Carol Kling said she was deeply saddened by the news. "I'm very heartbroken, as a lot of us are, because we all love Father Dennis a lot. It's very sad," Kling said. "I'm going to miss him."

Kling said the announcement took many Lemmon-area Catholics by surprise. Some were surprised to find the bishop at Mass last Sunday. "It was a pretty big shock," she said.

Cupich said he went to Lemmon, Morristown and Wautaga to deliver the difficult news himself and to grieve. "I realized I needed to grieve over this, because it is a loss, a loss of a good man. And the best place for me to do that is with the people up there who are also grieving."

One or two people told Cupich that removing Riss for something that happened before he became a priest was an overreaction, but most people saw it as "an application of the policy that we already have in force in the diocese," he said.

Cupich believes all Catholic dioceses are being painted unfairly by the media with the same "broad brush" of the sexual-abuse scandal. Many, such as the Rapid City diocese, are doing a good job of handling allegations, he said.

His diocese has long had a sexual-abuse policy in place that puts the needs of the victim first, Cupich said, and it makes no distinction between a victim who is 7 or 17. "Any time we're talking about a minor, it's abuse," Cupich said. "Since the victim was 17 at the time, and he (Riss) was an adult, nobody can speak of 'consensual' in this instance."

In a letter to the three parishes, Cupich said the policy may seem harsh but is necessary. "The care and protection of young people has to shape whatever response we give to this serious problem facing the church, even if it causes embarrassment and scandal, and results in the dismissal of a priest from ministry."


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