Bishop Accused of Sex Abuse
Retired Now, He Was a Priest in Davenport Diocese in '60s

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register [Davenport IA]
January 19, 2005

Catholic Church officials disclosed Tuesday that a retired bishop was accused of child sexual abuse in the 1960s, when he was a priest, and that the Davenport diocese paid $20,000 to settle with one of the accusers.

It is the first time in Iowa that a bishop has been publicly accused of abuse in connection with the scandal that has exposed decades of abuse of minors by clergy.

Retired Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens was accused of child sexual abuse when he was a priest in the Davenport diocese in the 1960s, according to a report issued Tuesday by Davenport Bishop William Franklin.

Soens was the Sioux City diocese's fifth bishop, from 1983 to 1998. Tuesday's report, which summarized the Davenport diocese's investigation of sexual abuse in the past year, says there were three allegations against Soens. The diocese settled one of those allegations for $20,000 in October.

Timothy Bottaro, Soens' attorney, said that Soens has denied the allegations, but that since the matter is now before church authorities, he can make no comment.

Sioux City Diocese spokesman Jim Wharton defended Soens and said news of the allegations "shocks and saddens all of us."

Soens served at Davenport diocese parishes in Burlington, Victor, Charlotte and Clinton. He was an administrator at Regina High School in Iowa City, on the faculty of St. Ambrose Academy, and served as rector and on the faculty of St. Ambrose College in Davenport before becoming a bishop.

The Sioux City diocese never received complaints regarding sexual impropriety against Soens, Wharton said.

"Soens' service as shepherd of the diocese was exemplary," Wharton said. "He is a special person who has dedicated his priesthood to working and caring for others. He is a prayerful, holy man, and the people of the diocese pray for him and those who make these allegations."

Soens did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Franklin issued Tuesday's report as a summary of child sexual abuse that the diocese has received since its last report on Feb. 25, 2004. An allegation against Soens was noted in that report, although he was not named. Two additional allegations against him surfaced in the past year.

The Davenport Diocese reported and the Sioux City Diocese confirmed that Soens is "completely retired and not involved in any capacity."

However, Soens accompanied the Rev. Roger Augustine of the Diocese of Sioux City on a November visit to the Vatican, where the U.S. bishops met privately with Pope John Paul II. A Sioux City chancery phone is listed for Soens. When the number was called Tuesday, a secretary said that Soens "is not in the office today."

Franklin said that he is in consultation with Catholic Church authorities for final resolution of the matter.

Soens' name did not surface publicly until now because no lawsuits were filed naming him, according to Patrick Noaker, an attorney for victims who as a group reached a $9 million settlement in October with the Davenport diocese.

Also in Tuesday's report, the bishop noted that one of the five priests he recommended be defrocked has received that punishment.

The Vatican in September dismissed from the priesthood James Janssen, 82, the diocese's most-sued priest.

However, the Rev. Francis Bass, 82, who was linked in several allegations with Janssen, will not be defrocked. The Vatican decided, in light of Bass' advanced age and retirement, to instruct him to "lead a life of prayer and penance, and to privately offer Holy Mass once a week for the remainder of his days in reparation for the crimes he has committed."

"The problem with cases like Bass is that some bishops do not enforce the restrictions against abusive priests," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "It's ludicrous to think the Vatican will. It's all meaningless unless there is vigorous enforcement, and we've yet to see even that."

William Wiebler, 72, who was named in several lawsuits as a priest who molested boys in the 1970s and 1980s, has been living in an apartment near a school in a St. Louis suburb. The Vatican has authorized a canonical trial for Wiebler. If he is found guilty and the penalty is dismissal from the priesthood, the defrocking request must again be made to Rome.

Frank Martinez, 55, who was accused of initiating sexual activity with a minor in 1986, will also receive a canonical trial, and if he is to be removed from the priesthood, the decision must be endorsed by the Vatican.

In the meantime, Wiebler and Martinez will be held to the same sanctions placed on Bass. They must restrict their contact with youth and may not wear a Roman collar or present themselves as priests to the public.

The Vatican has asked for more information about the case against of Richard Poster, 40, who was sentenced in 2004 to a year in prison on charges of having child pornography on his computer.

The Diocese of Davenport in the past year received 48 new allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against 17 priests.

Forty-one people made accusations, some against more than one priest. Thirty of the allegations were against three priests: nine against James Janssen, nine against Francis Bass and 12 against William Wiebler.

New allegations were made against five deceased priests who had not been named before. One new allegation was made against a former priest who was removed from ministry in the 1980s. The priest has since married.

The diocese is not publishing the names of these newly accused priests. However, it has turned over the allegations to the Scott County attorney's office.

Since the $9 million settlement of 37 sexual abuse claims in October, the diocese has entered into two additional settlements. The diocese paid $20,000 to the victim in one of three claims made against retired Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens. A man alleging he was abused by Wiebler in the 1970s was paid $50,000 by the diocese and its insurance carrier.

As with allegations reported in 2003, most were claims of abuse that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the diocese reported. Five allegations were about abuse in the 1980s. No abuse has been reported to have occurred in the 1990s to the present.