Iowa parish acts to remove pain left by abuse
By SHIRLEY RAGSDALE - Register Religion Editor
January 24, 2004
Grand Mound, Ia. - The human history of tiny Saints Philip
and James parish is recorded on the church's stained glass
windows, where parishioners' and priests' names are engraved
to commemorate service or special anniversaries.
When abuse allegations began to surface about the Rev. James
Janssen, Grand Mound's parish priest from 1980 to 1990, members
tried to erase his name from one of the windows.
They tried varnish remover, paintbrush cleaner and nail polish
remover to lift the name of the man who has been accused in
lawsuits of sexually abusing eight boys during his 42 years
as a priest in the Davenport diocese. Finally, they took the
whole window out and had that pane of glass replaced.
The 200 Catholic families in this farm community are learning
that the past is not easily erased or denied.
On Jan. 17, after weeks of reflection and discussion, the
parish council sent a critical letter to Davenport Bishop
William Franklin. The council then sent the letter to several
Don Green, a respected member of the congregation, had identified
himself as one of Janssen's victims. Parishioners were concerned
there might be others. They wondered if abuse was the reason
some men raised in the parish walked away from the faith.
"We can no longer maintain our silence, as silence constitutes
consent to sexual abuse of our children," the letter
The congregation accused the diocese of failing to provide
the information or services needed to help it heal the pain
it was experiencing. Nor did the diocese follow its own sexual
"At no time did diocesan officials contact us as parish
council members. At no time were we offered a parish meeting
with diocesan officials or otherwise for a more complete discussion
of the complaint. And, at no time were any follow-up procedures
established to assess the ongoing impact of the disclosures
in our parish," they wrote.
The letter was a plea from the faithful in a diocese that
has taken hit after hit in the media on the church sexual
* Davenport is the most sued district in Iowa on priest abuse.
* Davenport didn't complete a survey on the scope of abuse
in the diocese over 50 years, as requested by a national bishops
* A victim's group labels Davenport as one of the worst dioceses
in the country in responding to victims.
* Davenport is the only diocese in the continental United
States that doesn't cooperate with auditors looking at its
sexual abuse policy.
This small Iowa congregation is struggling with what Catholics
across the nation have experienced since the church's sexual
abuse scandal broke two years ago in the Boston Archdiocese.
As lawsuits revealed evidence of the presence of pedophile
priests being moved from parish to parish and a massive cover-up
by Catholic hierarchy, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
took decisive action to smother the scandal with new policies
and accountability. They ordered a survey of the scope of
the problem of sexual abuse by clergy and an audit of dioceses'
compliance with the new policies.
"I think this is the first time a parish has challenged
the bishop on this issue," said Craig Levine, a lawyer
handling most of the sexual abuse lawsuits against the diocese.
Diocese officials said neither the bishop, nor other diocese
leaders would be available to speak to the Register about
the congregation's letter or the church's response.
The six members of the parish council who spoke to a Register
reporter Wednesday said they did not set out to challenge
Green's family approached them expressing frustration with
the diocese's response to the abuse allegations and asking
"We decided to do something on behalf of the parish
because we knew they were hurting," said parish council
member Diane Scott of Grand Mound. "At the same time,
we did what we did to give Don Green the care and concern
he needed to hear from the parish."
But what could they do? Members of the group felt they were
elected to make routine decisions for the congregation, like
choose the color of carpet, not take a stand on such a hot-button
"When I made the motion that we offer support, I did
not know what it would look like," said Lisa Fox of DeWitt,
a council member. "It could have just been an encouragement
card. We also decided that whatever we did, we would speak
as one, not as individuals."
The decision to demand action from the bishop was not taken
lightly, said parish council members. They had no experience
being advocates; they were mothers and fathers, daughters
and sons raised in the parish. They had jobs, families, responsi-bilities.
They weren't happy with the idea that their names would be
in the newspaper.
"We are all volunteers, raised before Vatican II,"
which empowered Catholic laypeople to take a more prominent
role in parish life, said Scott. "We were raised to believe
that priests and bishops are God on Earth. It was very difficult."
But once they got past being "Catholic to the core,
cradle to the grave," council members set about writing
a letter that would speak for the parish's 200 families. Sometimes
emotions spilled out in tears, Scott said.
The final draft of the letter was crafted after five council
meetings and countless e-mail revisions, said Neil A. Mason
of Calamus, council president.
"Looking back, the first drafts were very angry,"
Council members drew straws to determine who would read the
letter to the congregation. A distressed Fox drew the short
When the congregation gathered for Mass on Jan. 16, the kindergarten
teacher believed she was prepared. But then the news raced
through the church: Bishop Franklin was here. No one knew
he was coming; Franklin told them later that a victim suggested
he come to the parish's Mass.
At the end of the services, a suddenly calm Fox walked to
the podium and read the letter: "The first part Scripture,
the second part the diocese's own policy and the last, our
own words," she said.
"By being forthcoming with information regarding the
accusations of sexual abuse within our diocese, you have the
chance of a lifetime to break down barriers and build a bridge
of reconciliation, healing and compassion between the hierarchy
and the laity of the Catholic Church," she read. "You
can help end the division in this body and heal the suffering.
Only then can we, as one body in Christ, share in the joy
of creating a church which honors God with faith, justice,
truth and love."
Her family members told Fox afterward that the bishop did
not take his eyes off her as she read.
And when she finished, there was a short pause. Then the
entire congregation applauded.
At the conclusion of the services, Franklin joined the congregation
in the church classrooms. The conversation continued for two
The council asked the bishop for a response before Feb. 2."
Steps for healing
The parish council of Grand Mound suggested several steps
to help Davenport diocese Catholics cope with the sexual abuse
allegations against several priests.
*The bishop should hold a healing Mass, as some other bishops
*Priests with allegations against them should be monitored
and communities warned if the priests are moved there.
*All parishioners should be offered the opportunity to view
child abuse prevention videos.
*Diocese outreach should include people who were baptized
or married by priests accused of sexual misconduct, so they
may be assured the sacraments are valid.
The Rev. James Janssen was a priest at 13 Davenport diocese
parishes from 1948 until 1990 when he retired. Diocese officials
will not speak about him, other than to say he is living in
a retirement home for priests in Davenport. Now in his 80s,
he has not had any diocesan duties since 1990. Janssen, through
his attorney and in court documents, has denied the allegations
SEVEN LAWSUITS: Janssen has been named in seven lawsuits.
One filed by Janssen's nephew, James Wells, alleges the priest
began sexually abusing him in 1953, when Wells was 5 and Janssen
was assigned to St. Mary's Parish in Clinton. The abuse reportedly
ended in 1962.
FORT MADISON: Two lawsuits claim Janssen abused boys under
the age of 14 at St. Joseph Parish in Fort Madison, where
the priest served as assistant pastor from 1961 to 1967.
SUGAR CREEK: Two lawsuits accuse Janssen of sexual abuse
of minors when he was pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Sugar
Creek between 1967 and 1979.
LATEST: The latest lawsuit, filed Jan. 9 by a former altar
boy, claims Janssen began abusing the plaintiff in the early
1960s but does not identify which parish in the Davenport
diocese where the abuse occurred. The lawsuit filed by Donald
Green alleges abuse while Janssen was pastor at Saints Philip
and James parish in Grand Mound, which was his final and longest
assignment as a priest.