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Report finds Catholic church in Kansas covered up sexual abuse of children by priests for decades

A Catholic Church
David Condos
/
Kansas News Service

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation found that the church minimized child rape with euphemisms, protected priests accused of rape and supported clergy financially after they had been implicated in sexual assault.

This story originally neglected to note the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas asked the attorney general to commission the KBI investigation.

A Kansas Bureau of Investigation report released late Friday documents a chronic pattern of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the state, and the church’s history of protecting its clergy.

The report released by the state attorney general’s office said dioceses across the state frequently failed to follow church policies regarding allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

“By any objective review,” the report states, “practices existed that were designed to conceal the truth about what took place.”

The task force that conducted the overview said efforts to prosecute cases were hampered by actions of the church, by expiring statutes of limitations and the deaths of both alleged abusers and their victims.

In late 2018, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked the KBI to launch an investigation following the release of documents by Catholic dioceses in Kansas on allegations of sexual abuse.

"Schmidt directed the KBI to do so in response to Kansas City Archdiocese Archbishop Joseph Naumann," the report states. "Archbishop Naumann's request followed law firm Husch Blackwell’s review of available church files of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, where they identified 15 clergy members who warranted further investigation."

The resulting 25-page summary report released by Schmidt’s office looked back 50 years. The KBI said it looked through more than 40,000 pages of records, fielded 224 tips, interviewed 137 victims and launched 125 criminal cases.

But that’s yet to lead to any new criminal charges, the KBI report said, mostly because the cases were so old that state law didn’t allow for prosecution many years after the alleged abuses.

Still, the KBI’s report said the agency had identified 188 clergy suspected of committing crimes — including sodomy, rape and child rape.

“The abuses revealed during the investigation had a profound effect on the victims, the families of victims and our task force members,” KBI director Kirk Thompson wrote in a letter to the attorney general accompanying the report. “Those victims, whose lives have been traumatically affected by what happened to them as a child, have shown hope, strength and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity.”

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas released a statement Saturday morning thanking the attorney general and the KBI for their work. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said he joined bishops across the state “in offering his deepest apologies to the victims, their families, the faithful of the church, and the Kansas Catholic community at large."

In the report, the KBI task force traced the breaking of the scandal to reporting from The Boston Globe in 2001 and 2002. It noted the subsequent defrocking of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for his role in the sexual abuse of both seminarians and minors. The KBI report notes that he was eventually given refuge in a friary near the St. Fidelis Basilica in Victoria, Kansas.

But the task force also concluded that the church made improvements as early as 1998 to discourage the practice of protecting priests who faced allegations of abuse. The KBI said the church became less prone to transferring clergy to different parishes or dioceses to shield them from accusations or possible prosecution.

“A review of church data,” the report states, “indicates a decline in substantiated abuse over the decades, especially in recent years.”

In the statement, Archbishop Naumann said the diocese had adopted “a victim-centered approach using restorative principles to address the grave harm of abuse.”

Yet the KBI’s work lays out a damning examination of Kansas dioceses. And it complained of challenges that made it difficult to investigate the systemic problems – including “inadequacies within the Catholic dioceses recordkeeping policies and systems” on sexual abuse allegations.

Investigators also reported that they were stymied after some victims were reluctant to cooperate because they’d signed non-disclosure agreements when settling civil suits against dioceses. Other victims reached out to the task force “but then decided not to participate with the investigation.”

Investigators had even less luck talking with priests accused of sexual assault.

“In the vast majority of cases,” the report states, “the perpetrator of the sexual abuse was unavailable because of death, the case was well beyond the statute of limitations, or medically unable to participate in the investigation.”

At one point in the KBI probe, investigators traveled to a ranch operated by the Capuchin Province, a Catholic religious order that operates in Kansas and elsewhere. The report stated that “multiple offender priests reside” at the ranch. The priests declined to meet with the KBI agents.

And, the report says, “in many cases, the victims, or priests, were deceased.”

The report says church officials tended to use language that “minimized the seriousness or severity of actions and abuse” by priests. For instance, rather than say “rape,” church officials would say “inappropriate contact.”

“Rather than characterizing a priest as a criminal or rapist, they would soften the language and indicate the priest may have ‘boundary issues,’” the report says.

And for decades, the KBI concluded, church officials failed to report allegations to police and did only cursory investigations of their own.

When the church did take action against priests, the task force found, it spoke about their removal in terms of retirement or sick leave or said the clergy were dealing with alcoholism rather than tell parishioners they were pedophiles.

“Even if the church substantiated that a priest was raping or sexually abusing others, including children, the church often continued to provide the priest housing and living expenses,” the report says. “In some cases priests were able to further commit additional child abuse.”

The report called the practice of transferring priests to other parishes to protect them from abuse charges “horrific.”

It characterized investigations by dioceses as “inconsistent and inadequate” and noted the practice of transferring priests and supporting them financially after they became targets of sexual abuse allegations.

Scott Canon is managing editor of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon or email scott (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link toksnewsservice.org.

As the editor of a statewide news outlet, I aspire to work with our reporters to give Kansans a clear-eyed view of the place they call home. That means delivering hard-hitting stories that expose those things that keep Kansas from being the most vibrant, healthy place it can be. You can reach me at scott@kcur.org or 816-235-8023.