Bishop's Column

‘A call for vigilance and action’

From Bishop James D. Conley  

As a priest and as bishop, both in Denver and here, I have been dedicated to the protection of minors, young adults and all people. 

The evil of sexual abuse of minors and of adults is in all parts of our lives, in all institutions, and the Church has not been spared from this evil.  My work to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has been one of the central parts of my service to the Lord and to the faithful in the Diocese of Lincoln. It is for this reason that the recent events in the diocese have made my heart heavy. Yet again I am being taught by the Lord that there is more to learn about warning signs of abuse and wrong behaviors that must be addressed immediately.

This has been a difficult time for me as I reflect on a number of the situations that have become the focus of my full attention in the last few weeks. What I am learning is that even when there may not be clear and obvious signs of sexual abuse and physical assault, there can still be behavior that can be rightly seen as abuse, boundary violations, warning signs, and conduct that requires intervention. If we investigate these warning signs with appropriate vigor, we could learn there is a misunderstanding, but we could also learn there was serious abuse that we did not know about.

What I am now seeing in these recent situations must lead to change, in me and in the diocese as a whole. We must take even initial signs of inappropriate actions, boundary violations, and wrongful conduct as potentially something far more serious—warning signs and a demand for action. Let me say here, I will not and we must not dismiss or rationalize any account of any person who comes forward with a concern, and we must fully investigate every report, even more strenuously than we have in the past.

Let me also say that it is critical for the diocese and for me as your shepherd to continue to act proportionately, to not treat priests as guilty until all the facts are known, and to assure that if there are different versions of events or different views, those are heard objectively. We must honor the processes in place to protect those who are accused, and to get to the truth for those who have been wronged or hurt.

We must be fair and just, but these times and these issues rightly demand we focus on protection of minors and young adults as our first and highest priority. We must err on the side of precaution and protection. With time, we can fairly evaluate the facts, but protection will remain and be reemphasized as our immediate priority, by our policies, but much more importantly, by how each of us acts.

At the outset of the recent reports of potential wrongs or inappropriate relationships by priests with minors and adults, I immediately wrote and had read last Sunday at all parishes, a letter detailing my commitment to you that I was going to be open and forthright in what I learn about these allegations, and how future allegations of inappropriate behavior made against priests or laity employed by the diocese will be investigated.

Already I have taken the following actions:

I presented to the Diocesan Review Board cases that I discuss below. This has been an active process. I met with the Review Board Aug. 7, and I met with them again Aug. 13 for further counsel. I am sharing all of the information that is known in these cases with this group.

I celebrated and preached at all the Masses at St. Peter Parish in Lincoln Aug. 4-5. On Aug. 6, I held a listening session before 500 people at St. Peter’s. The topic was Father Townsend’s behavior. Their message to me was clear and honest: they desire transparency and objectivity, and that remains my promise to you.

On Aug. 10, I met with several hundred people in Wahoo and heard voices angry at the possibility of abuse, and those angry at the damage to a priest’s reputation. I urged them and I urge all of you, please reserve judgment. Accept my actions to get to the truth, to have this investigated, and to learn from what comes from this difficult situation.

I assembled a group of senior advisors to help me evaluate abuse allegations. The advisors include members of my staff, officials from the Archdiocese of Omaha, and a mental health expert.

This type of transparency and objectivity will continue and I promise you it will include a thorough review of our safe environment policies and procedures by an outside investigator. This will include a review of the most recent incident involving Father Townsend, an evaluation of my staff and their response to improper behavior allegations made against a priest, and an evaluation of my response to and readiness for sexual abuse allegations.

Consistent with my pledge to be open and forthright as this process continues, let me share what I can at this time about five cases that are the subject of the Diocese’s full attention right now.

Msgr. Kalin – One case concerns the Diocese of Lincoln’s former vocations director, Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who retired in 1998 and died in 2008. While Msgr. Kalin was respected by many, others report difficult experiences with him. Allegations were made regarding his moral conduct which 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 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. We are continuing to gather information about these recent allegations. I encourage anyone with information about these or similar allegations to contact our Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator at 402-613-2488.

Father Townsend – Father Charles Townsend has resigned his pastorate. There are facts that raise serious concerns about Father Townsend’s conduct toward a young man. In recent days I have been learning that these inappropriate actions should be viewed even more seriously than I did when I removed Father Townsend from ministry and sent him for treatment. These are – again – warning signs and actions that deserved serious attention. Father Townsend’s incident is under investigation by the civil authorities, and so I cannot comment further at this time, but as I said at the outset, I am committed to having an objective review that determines what happened and how this situation should have been handled. I will share more information at the conclusion of the civil and Church investigation.

Father Barvick – I previously instructed Father Patrick Barvick that he was not to be alone with females. His behavior, which was contrary to my specific instructions, concerns me and the Diocesan Review Board. I have asked him to temporarily step aside from his parish while this situation is evaluated. Father Cyrus Rowan will cover the parish pending the outcome of this evaluation. I celebrated the Holy Day Masses at St. Mary Parish in Davey Aug. 14-15.

Father Thomlison – In a meeting with Father Steven Thomlison to discuss a past incident in the military that was a concern to me and the Diocesan Review Board, Father submitted his resignation as pastor of St. Stephen in Exeter and St. Wenceslaus in Milligan. I also spoke at all the Masses in Exeter and Milligan Aug. 11-12. I want to make it clear that Father’s behavior did not involve an offense against a minor or a parishioner. Father received an honorable military discharge. I am committed to getting Father the care he needs.

Father Benton – Father James Benton was accused in 2002 for inappropriately touching a minor on a camping trip between 1980-1982. That matter was fully investigated by the Lincoln Diocese. The allegations could not be substantiated.

In the fall of 2017, Father Benton resigned his pastorate following allegations of sexual abuse of two family members that occurred over 25 years ago. These allegations were addressed by the Diocesan Review Board and referred to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF returned the matter to me to take appropriate action. I prohibited him from exercising public ministry in the diocese. I also restricted him from being alone with minors. He is now retired.

To report allegations of sexual abuse by any person affiliated with the Lincoln Diocese, we encourage you to contact your local law enforcement agency or the Nebraska Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-652-1999). You may also contact our Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator at 402-613-2488. As you read this and consider it with an open heart, I hope one thing we are learning together is that your reports and vigilance must include things that make you uncomfortable, that you may question in your own mind and heart if they really constitute “abuse.” Please report these if there is uncertainty, and know that those reports are critical.

I will continue this same process of updating you in the days ahead about our efforts and the outcome of these and any other situations that may be reported in the future. I continue to ask for your prayers and I ask for your forgiveness for any and all of my own weaknesses in this entire process. Daily we are hearing reports from all over the country in every form of institution and every walk of life of the evil of sexual abuse of children and of adults. I pray for every victim of abuse, and ask that you do as well.

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