Lawsuit Targets Late Priest; a Woman Says She Was Raped at Sacred Heart in 1959, When She Was 12

By Mary Nevans Pederson
Telegraph Herald [Dubuque IA]
March 15, 2005

A new lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Dubuque claims a Catholic priest raped a school girl in the basement of a Dubuque church 45 years ago and was transferred to other archdiocesan parishes for two decades after the alleged attack.

The suit, the latest in a number of lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by priests or nuns in the archdiocese, was the focus of a victims' rights group press conference Monday.

The Rev. John A. Schmitz, now dead, was a 30-year-old priest at the time of the alleged abuse. The plaintiff, identified in the suit as Jane Doe, was a 12-year-old student at Sacred Heart School in 1959 when Schmitz told the girl, while he was listening to her confession, to meet him in the basement, according to court documents. He then forced her to disrobe, took off his own clothes and had sex with her, the plaintiff claims.

Almost a year later, the girl told another priest who brought her to the archdiocesan administration building, where she recounted the incident to church officials. Within days, they had questioned Schmitz who signed a confession as to what had occurred, the lawsuit claims.

But the girl's family was warned not to speak publicly about the rape, "because there was a Roman Catholic running for president (John F. Kennedy) and because such a story would make the front pages and would hurt his chances to win the presidency," according to court documents filed Friday.

According to the archdiocese, Schmitz served in eight other towns within the archdiocese until 1982. He was working at St. Mary Parish in Greene, Iowa, when he was removed from active duty.

"Parishioners complained to Archbishop Byrne about Father Schmitz's financial management and his relationship with an adult woman," Archbishop Jerome Hanus said in a prepared statement.

In subsequent years, Schmitz was never again allowed to act as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque. But Byrne allowed him to accept an assignment as an associate pastor in San Bernadino, Calif. Two years ago, a California woman claimed in a lawsuit against both dioceses that Schmitz sexually abused her as a minor.

"What John Schmitz is alleged to have done to both young women was clearly wrong and violates his vows as a priest," Hanus wrote, adding that if the incident were to happen today, it would be turned over to law enforcement immediately.

Monday, three alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse protested in front of the archdiocese's administration building to show support for Jane Doe and other victims and to again ask the archdiocese to release the names of all credibly accused priests.

"They know who the priests are. If they release the names, more victims will come forward," said Steve Theisen, of Hudson, Iowa, who said a nun abused him at Sacred Heart School when he was a student there.

"Society would not allow serial rapists and child sex offenders to run free, but the archdiocese did just that. Sexual predators could find safe haven in the Archdiocese of Dubuque," he said.

Theisen, Heather Smith, of Waterloo, Iowa, and Melvin Loes, of East Dubuque, Ill., are all members of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. They held signs asking for accused priests' names to be made public.

There are many reasons why that won't happen, explained Monsignor James Barta, vicar general for the archdiocese.

"There are matters of privacy, especially in previous agreements reached, and church law in some cases," Barta said. "It's a matter of weighing laws, individual's rights and the right to know. We have pondered it a great deal."

Barta reiterated that with current reporting guidelines in place, if there is a complaint of sexual abuse against a member of the clergy, a religious brother or sister or another employee of the archdiocese, "within minutes we would tell law enforcement."

Schmitz died in 1991. For the eight years before that, he received a retirement pension from the archdiocese of $800 per month, the suit claims. During the time he was an active priest, the archdiocese knew about his "harmful and unlawful conduct" and failed to protect the plaintiff and others from him.

The plaintiff asked for a jury trial and is seeking damages for severe emotional distress and the costs of mental health counseling and punitive damages.

CORRECTION-DATE: March 16, 2005 Wendesday

Headline: Lawsuit targets late priest

Published: 03-15-2005

• Thomas Anderegg, a coordinator for the Archdiocese of Dubuque's Office of Child Protection, can be reached at 563/556-1225. An incorrect phone number appeared on Page 1A Tuesday.


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