David McGrath: The need to protect children

By David Mcgrath
Pioneer Press
June 11, 2017

Father Kenneth Gansmann, pastor of St. John’s Church in Union Hill in New Prague, sexually assaulted me when I was 6 years old.

He was a friend of the family and a Franciscan who wore the familiar brown robe, knotted white cord, and sandals, when he wasn’t saying Mass.

I remember him as a people-friendly monk: soft spoken, with an infectious laugh, more like a chuckle, when he talked about baseball with my father, or politics with my uncles.

And Gansmann was implicitly trusted by my parents, who felt honored to have a man of God visit their home. With charm, deception, and gifts, he manipulated a family who revered his office and power.

He knew I was too young to understand, too fearful to tell. And he repeated the offenses intermittently until I eventually learned how to steer clear. He continued to visit our home, but I was able to keep my distance.

Then one day we learned that he had lost his job as pastor at Union Hill and  was sent to a friary out of state. No pastoral responsibilities. He roomed there and said Mass every day.

A year later, he was handed another parish, appointed pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he remained till his death.

After college, I got a full-time job, married, had children, and did freelance writing on the side, penning stories for literary magazines, and commentary for dozens of city newspapers, including occasionally this one.

I considered using my forum to write about the now-deceased pedophile. But after consulting with siblings, it was decided, instead, to keep the secret from my aging mother. She would have incorrectly blamed herself for allowing harm to one of her children. And she would have been devastated by the grievous betrayal by a friend and representative of her life-long religion and faith.

Instead, in the mid 2000s, I wrote to the Archdiocese of St. Paul to report the crimes. Their office sent a reply, telling me that since Gansmann belonged to a religious order, I should contact the Franciscan Province in St. Louis.

The Provincial head in St. Louis agreed to look up Gansmann’s file, after which he informed me that there had been other child sexual assault complaints made in both Minnesota and Tennessee.

And though I consider myself a reasonably skilled communicator, I struggle  to articulate how important  the corroboration was. It was akin, perhaps, to a feeling of having been trapped and wandering blindly, alone, in the depths of a coal mine for endless days;  and then, rounding a corner, finding a dozen other trapped miners.

Within the last several years, after the law firm representing me and other victims succeeded in getting the Archdiocese to disclose their files, Gansmann was publicly identified. Records showed that the Archdiocese had been aware as early as the middle 1950s, that their pastor at Union Hill was abusing children. But they did not tell the police. Did not tell their parishioners. Instead, they quietly expelled him from St. John’s.

Had they followed the law in reporting the pedophile, he would not have been handed the parish in Tennessee, with easy access to hundreds of more children for another 14 years.

Had they been more concerned about innocent children’s lives than they were about their own image and interests, crimes committed against me and others might have ended sooner, or, in some cases, might not have even been perpetrated.

All these years later, my personal feelings are irresolute, even as people I’ve told have apologized or commiserated. Although Gansmann essentially vitiated the childhood of a 6-year-old, expression of sympathy to a survivor, decades after the fact, is philosophical and abstract, though well-intentioned.

It’s a long-ago part of my life about which it’s difficult to feel anything. As when your jaw is rendered numb from Novacaine, and you try to touch it, but nothing seems to be there.

Nor am I able any longer to dredge up hatred for the misanthrope, whose crime spree ended with his death 42 years ago.

What does hearten me, however, are the efforts  by organizations like SNAP (Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests) and Bishop Accountability, among others, fighting to protect children, and to obtain for victims the corroboration that was so crucial for me. They are leading the push to require all credible priest abuse reports to be made public; to lift the statutes of limitations on child molestation in all 50 states; and to prosecute predators and hold accountable the leaders of dioceses that have transferred, shielded, or in any way enabled them.

Why are their initiatives so important?

Try visualizing, for a moment, an innocent child riding a bicycle, a happy kid discovering the world, playing with his brothers and sisters. Then conjure the faces of grown men—bishops and priests —standing nearby, watching in silence, as the defenseless child is abased by one of their own.

Watch them turn their backs and walk away, to resume their duties as “shepherds” in Christ’s church.

I urge all citizens, especially parents, to support the organizations, the legislators, and the advocacy groups working to stamp out and prevent from ever happening again, what has amounted to nearly a century of organized crime against children.


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