Lincoln bishop promises transparency, objectivity in abuse cases
April 18, 2019
LINCOLN – Claims of priest wrongdoing have prompted the Diocese of Lincoln to thoroughly review its policies and procedures for responding to allegations of abuse and misconduct by priests, Bishop James D. Conley told people gathered Aug. 10 at St. Wenceslaus Church in Wahoo.
The review will include an outside investigator and be marked by transparency and objectivity, the bishop said.
The meeting was held in response to several allegations published online against priests in the diocese. Bishop Conley said he has presented several cases to the Diocesan Review Board, and is continuing to meet with the board for further counsel. He has assembled a group of senior advisers – including staff members, a mental health expert, and officials from the Archdiocese of Omaha – to help evaluate allegations of abuse.
Bishop Conley also has held several listening sessions at parishes affected by recent allegations against priests.
The bishop held a listening session at St. Peter Parish in Lincoln Aug. 6 to discuss the behavior of Father Charles Townsend, the pastor. The message from the 500 people in attendance was clear: “They desire transparency and objectivity, and that is my promise to you and all the faithful in the diocese as I move forward.”
The bishop had addressed the allegations against Father Townsend in an Aug. 4 letter, saying that last year he “received a report that Father Townsend had developed an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male which involved alcohol.”
Upon receiving the report, he immediately withdrew the priest from ministry and sent him to a treatment center in Houston before allowing him to return to ministry.
Bishop Conley said he attempted to act with integrity, telling the parishioners that the priest had gone away for health reasons. But while he did not cover up the situation or oblige anyone to keep silent about it, he said he regrets failing to act with more transparency.
“Even though we were not legally obligated to report the incident, it would have been the prudent thing to do. Because the young man had reached the age of majority, we did not tell his parents about the incident.”
In his Aug. 4 letter, Bishop Conley said he had removed Father Townsend from ministry in order to consult with the Diocesan Review Board, reported the incident to civil authorities, and met with the young man and his parents to ask for forgiveness.
At the Aug. 10 listening session, Conley said that Father Townsend has now resigned his pastorate.
“The matter has been reported to authorities and is being investigated,” he said. The investigations will look into Father Townsend’s behavior, as well as the response of Bishop Conley and his staff.
The bishop also discussed three other diocesan priests. He said he is concerned about the behavior of Father Patrick Barvick, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Davey, whom he had previously instructed not to be alone with women. He has asked the priest to step aside from the parish temporarily while he evaluates the situation.
Father Steve Thomlison has resignd as pastor of St. Stephen in Exeter and St. Wenceslaus in Milligan, Bishop Conley said. The resignation came during a meeting “to discuss a past incident in the military that was a concern.”
Bishop Conley clarified that the incident did not involve an offense against a minor or a parishioner, and that Father Thomlison received an honorable discharge from the military.
“I am committed to getting Father the care he needs. Please join me in praying for Father Thomlison,” the bishop said.
Bishop Conley also addressed the case of now-retired priest Father James Benton, who was accused in 2002 of touching a minor inappropriately during a camping trip that had taken place during the early 1980s.
“That matter was fully investigated by the Lincoln diocese. The allegations could not be substantiated,” Bishop Conley said. Last fall, Father Benton resigned his pastorate of St. John the Baptist Parish in Minden after being accused of sexually abusing two family members more than 25 years ago, he said.
The allegations were handled by the Diocesan Review Board, Bishop Conley said, and referred to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which returned the matter to the bishop to take action.
Bishop Conley said he prohibited Father Benton from exercising public ministry in the diocese and ordered him not to be alone with minors.
Another case also has the diocese’s attention, Bishop Conley said in an Aug. 17 column in the Southern Nebraska Register, the diocesan newspaper.
Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who retired in 1998 and died in 2008, was from 1970 until the late 1990s the diocese’s vocations director and pastor of the University of Nebraska Newman Center. Bishop Conley said he was respected by many, but others reported difficult experiences with him. Allegations made regarding his moral conduct included excessive smoking, drinking and gambling.
“The most disturbing, however, were in regard to emotional and physical boundary violations directed toward college students and seminarians,” the bishop wrote. “The diocese received reports of violations by Msgr. Kalin in the past. Since the Msgr. Kalin case has become public, we have received more information of concern, and we continue to act promptly moving forward.”
Steps already taken by the diocese, the Register reported Aug. 31, include an anonymous hotline and a website where people can report concerns. People still were encouraged to call law enforcement, as well.
In a posting on its website Sept. 1, the diocese said the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Roseland and Assumption Parish in Juniata, Father Scott Courtney, has been placed on administrative leave while police and diocesan officials investigate allegations of sexual contact with an adult woman. The allegations did not involve a parishioner or past parishioner of Father Courtney, the diocese said.
At the parish gathering Aug. 10, Bishop Conley reiterated his commitment to transparency and encouraged anyone who has experienced abuse by a member of the diocese to file a report with law enforcement authorities.
“I want to repeat to you that I am sorry for the manner in which I have responded to allegations of improper behavior brought against Lincoln priests,” he said. “I hope you forgive me.”
Catholic Voice News Editor Joe Ruff contributed to this report.