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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 local newspapers.

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 said.

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 conduct policy.

"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 abuse scandal:

* 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 group.

* 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 the bishop.

Green's family approached them expressing frustration with the diocese's response to the abuse allegations and asking for support.

"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 issue.

"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," Mason said.

Council members drew straws to determine who would read the letter to the congregation. A distressed Fox drew the short straw.

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 hours.

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 have done.

*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 accused

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 against him.

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests