Bishop Accountability

Accused Priests: 1
Total Priests:
Alleged Victims: 1
Cost: $0

See Cathy Lynn Grossman, Survey: More Clergy Abuse Cases Than Previously Thought (2/10/04) with AP table of data for 74 dioceses.

Reader: What about allegations before 1988?

Letter to the Editor
East Tennessee Catholic
March 7, 2004

The John Jay study is out. The Diocese of Knoxville has one credible allegation of clergy sexual abuse. No settlements have been made.

This voluntary self survey is touted as a major source of information even though it relies on the honesty and openness of the dioceses that participated to report on themselves. This leaves me with a few questions.

Will we hear about any allegations before 1988, when we became a separate diocese from Nashville? We have been an active Catholic community as part of the Diocese of Nashville since its formation in 1837. Were there other pedophile priests, nuns, or brothers here during the years of the study that we have not heard about? Do the people of this diocese not deserve to know who was here and when and where they might have encountered our unsuspecting children?

I ask the diocese to cross reference the report from Nashville and give us details that pertain to our people in the Diocese of Knoxville. This does not seem to be too much to ask. Perhaps by the time this letter appears, it will have been done in the spirit of the transparency encouraged by the Dallas charter. By the way, who is our one credible allegation? Or is it still a “personnel” issue and not able to be revealed?

—Susan Vance, Oak Ridge

Response from Father Vann Johnston, diocesan chancellor:

The Diocese of Knoxville, along with other dioceses in the United States, responded to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study according to how questions in the study were designed. The study took special steps not to obtain information that might identify victims, accused priests, or the diocese providing the information because of legal and privacy concerns. For these reasons the study focuses on the statistical data in an effort to assess the nature and scope of the abuse problem.

The Diocese of Knoxville typically does not discuss publicly any matters related to current or past employees, be they clergy or laity, in an effort to avoid diminishing anyone’s ability to exercise his or her human and civil rights. The diocese does report all allegations of abuse to public authorities in accordance with the laws of Tennessee and the policy of the diocese.

The Diocese of Nashville, which before 1988 included East Tennessee and before 1971 included the entire state, has reported that since 1950 there have been seven priests credibly accused, all before 1985. Of these seven, two have died, one is in prison, and the other four are no longer in ministry. The Diocese of Nashville has not identified these persons because of privacy concerns.

A letter from Bishop Kurtz

January 3, 2004

My dear people:

May God's blessings be with you in this New Year of 2004. Over the past two years I have communicated with you through The East Tennessee Catholic on an issue highly visible in the media--namely, past incidents of misconduct by clergy and the manner in which bishops handled them. I wrote to you of my abhorrence of acts of sexual abuse, which, as our Holy Father has stated, have no place in the Catholic Church. A year and a half ago the Catholic bishops of the United States developed a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which included a commitment to take steps to address incidents, to reach out to victims, and to create a "safe environment" to protect all the faithful.

I take the problem of sexual abuse very seriously and commit myself firmly to the charter. At the same time we have a duty to provide a clear and accurate context so that we address these issues directly and firmly while holding in esteem the vast number of bishops and priests who have served and continue to serve faithfully and chastely. Likewise, I thank you for addressing these issues with candor and with faith. We are one family, and your prayers and honest support have meant a great deal to your priests and to me.


I write to you now about two events that will be made public, one in the next week and the other in late February. On Tuesday, Jan. 6, the national results of the diocesan audits will be released. These audits were conducted by professionals to determine whether each diocese has in good faith put into practice the steps required by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. I am pleased to inform you that the Diocese of Knoxville has been found to be in full compliance. The auditors gave a commendation to the diocese for the policy that we have had in place and that was recently revised.

There were two friendly suggestions, which have already been implemented: that there be easy-to-read periodic announcements on the way suspected abuse is to be reported and that the implementation of the safe-environment program begin within calendar year 2003. The former is being addressed by clear announcements every three months or so in The East Tennessee Catholic, and the latter was begun in November.

In November more than 35 competent individuals from all parts of the diocese, who will serve as the facilitators of our safe-environment program, and the majority of priests received training. Training sessions in parishes and schools will be offered beginning this month. Please read this issue of The East Tennessee Catholic, which gives more detail about the audit. As we embark on a "safe environment" program that will serve to protect children and young people within the church and beyond, do your best to take part.


Secondly, the bishops committed themselves to seek out the nature and scope of the sexual-abuse problem within the Catholic Church in the United States, including such data as statistics on perpetrators and victims. The results of this study will be made available in late February. The Diocese of Knoxville has submitted its findings for the 15 years since its establishment in 1988. We reported that during this time one credible allegation was made against a priest within the diocese, and this priest is not in active ministry. No financial settlements have been made.

It is important to know that this study, commissioned by the bishops themselves, is the first and only comprehensive study of its kind on sexual abuse for any organization, religious or secular. It will likely set the standard for the protection of children and young people within our society for years to come. Likewise, it will provide insight into how the problem was perceived and dealt with over the years. I am told by some experts that the findings will likely indicate the positive effects of diocesan misconduct policies developed over the past 10 years. Our policy dates back to 1998 and has recently been revised.

I am keenly aware that one incident of misconduct is one too many. Thus, it is imperative that we determine whether the steps we have taken are adequate to the problem. This study allows us to do just that. In addition, we can make our experience available to the wider society. Necessary as this is, it will be painful to look at a report spanning half of a century. When you read coverage of the report, I ask that you keep in mind the context that I have outlined.


I want to assure you, the faithful, that I am working closely with our priests to ensure an atmosphere free of abuse. The steps being taken to develop a safe environment in our churches, schools, and homes are healthy and constructive. I am firmly committed to implementing the diocesan policy, should an allegation occur in the future, and to making use of our diocesan Review Board, composed primarily of competent lay people, in dealing with any allegations that might arise concerning future or past incidents. I will work with our victims' assistance coordinator, Marla Lenihan, to reach out to any victims of abuse, should they come forward. I ask your assistance in taking part in the training opportunities and in reporting any suspected abuse by calling my office (865-584-3307) or that of the diocesan victims' assistance coordinator, Marla Lenihan (865-482-1388).

Finally, I hold up in deep thanks the great presence and faithful service of our priests. I am one with my brother priests, who have continued to serve so faithfully and chastely. These last two years have not been easy ones for our church and most especially for the priests who serve you each day. Join me in holding up their faithful example in your prayers to our Lord and in your expressions of gratitude to them. Take the time to write to or speak with the priest who serves you so that he knows of your love and support. Finally, I thank you for your support of me as your bishop. Two years ago I promised you that I would address these issues with honesty and compassion. I intend to continue doing just that.

Our diocesan family continues to grow and thrive. We recently received the results of the annual parish surveys, indicating that more than 50,000 Catholics are now registered as members in 46 parishes. Our priests continue to serve faithfully. God willing, we will have three deacons ordained this year in preparation for the priesthood in another year, and more than 35 men are aspirants in our diaconate program, begun in 2003. You have been generous in your support of diocesan ministries through the Annual Stewardship Appeal, and your generous response continues. Land was purchased two months ago as a future site of a parish. As you may know, we are to receive a professional financial assessment on important areas to support for the future. Together let us give thanks for these signs of God's grace. As I provide leadership concerning the very serious issue of sexual abuse, I do so in a context that allows his grace to continue to foster growth within our church.

Sincerely yours in our Lord,
Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Bishop of Knoxville


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