LINCOLN, Neb. – For more than a decade, a conservative Catholic diocese in Nebraska was the only church in the US that refused to take part in the annual reviews of sexual misconduct that were an important reform adopted in the wake of the 2002 Boston clergy abuse scandal.
As a new wave of abuse scandals rock the Roman Catholic church, critics say that the Diocese of Lincoln is now paying the price for its reluctance to change and lack of transparency.
Accusers are coming forward in recent weeks with allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy in Nebraska, and the diocese is faced with a possible criminal investigation, and the criticism that it is wrong abusive priests, even if it should be subjected to increased monitoring after the Boston scandal.
From 2002 to 2015, the leaders of the diocese of Lincoln, refused to take part in the annual audits designed to discover sexual abuse, with allegations and measure how well the church officials were complying with child-protection policies. The leaders of the church called the audits a futile effort that is supposed wrongdoing by the diocese and the priests, but one of the bishops in that period knew of at least two accusations against the priests, according to interviews and a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
“I think that the closed nature of the bishopric made it even worse,” said Rachel Pokora, a member of the Catholic reform group Call to Action. “Even if the audit never revealed anything — and I think they probably have — it still shows a lack of willingness to be open.”
The Nebraska attorney general’s office has spoken with at least two prosecutors, and urged others to come forward about abuse in the diocese. Lincoln police are also investigating a priest accused of having an “emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male altar server that involved alcohol in 2017, church officials said.
A Lincoln spokesman of the police confirmed the investigation but refused to comment further. On Wednesday, the diocese unveiled a new, anonymous helpline and website to take complaints.
The scandals come amid accusations that Pope Francis is complicit in the face of the sex-abuse allegations against a former high-ranking cardinal in Washington, D. C., and a grand jury investigation that more than 1,000 child victims in Pennsylvania.
Many of the new allegations in Lincoln focus on the actions of the Rev. James Benton, a 71-year-old priest, who retired last year, in spite of the leaders of the church know about the abuse allegations against him for at least 15 years.
Dr. Stan Schulte, a 37-year-old chiropractor in Lincoln, said Benton, his uncle abused him at a rectory sleepover in the beginning of the 1990s, when he was a boy. Another Lincoln man, Jeffrey Hoover, reported a similar experience with Benton during a camping trip in the early 1980’s, while he and the priest slept in the same bed.
Church officials said they have not enough evidence to pursue the charges. Benton has not been charged with a crime, but the two men have spoken with an investigator from the Nebraska attorney general’s office.
A spokesman for the diocese, the Rev. Nick Tipper, said church officials would have no comment beyond statements by the current bishop, the Rev. James Conley.
Hoover said he will report his experiences as a priest in 1997 and directly to the then Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz in 2002. Schulte reported to the diocese in 2017 and said he probably would not have been abused if the diocese had responded to Hoover’s accusations.
Bruskewitz led the Lincoln diocese until 2010, and was the bishop, who refused to take part in the audits, says the diocese was after all the civil and Catholic laws. He argued that a number of members of the board of directors, which oversaw the audits were “advocates of a partial birth abortion, other abortions, human cloning, and other moral errors.”
“It is understandable how these persons could dislike the Diocese of Lincoln, which belongs to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” Bruskewitz said in 2006 a statement.
Among the audits, the participating dioceses should publish cases of sexual abuse and misconduct of a national council that brings together all the cases for a public annual report that shows the number of allegations and makes recommendations for how churches can improve.
The Lincoln Diocese is one of the nation’s most conservative, a reputation is marked by his refusal to have female altar servers. Almost all the Catholic churches eliminated their bans soon after the Vatican lifted the restriction in 1994.
Conley, who succeeded Bruskewitz, returned to the diocese policy of the audits and started to take part in them in 2015 after declaring that the process is better than that of the previous method.
Benton has denied the allegations and an investigation is not enough evidence to prosecute, according to a May 7 letter the diocese sent to Schulte. But the church offered to reimburse Schulte up to $3,000 for counseling if he submitted the receipts to show where he had sought treatment. Schulte said he thought it was intrusive for the church officials to know where he was going.
The church has also promised to keep Benton in a home for retired priests and said that it would not let him help with the Lincoln church services.
Benton retired in the fall of 2017 after new allegations to surface, and the church imposed new restrictions to prevent the priest from performing public ministry in the diocese, and prohibited him from being alone with minors.
Hoover said Benton touched his hip and groin area two times on a camping trip with other boys, when Hoover was about 10 years old.
Hoover said he was disgusted by the diocese of reaction, but not to pursue it because he doubted the church would do nothing more, he felt embarrassed, and he took Benton would not be able to communicate with the young boys in the future.
“I probably would have just lived,” he said. “But as soon as I started with children of my own, I realized that it was not only about me.”
The affairs came to light after a defrocked priest leveled allegations of this month, at the end of Monsignor Leonard Kalin, the former pastor of the University of Nebraska’s Newman Center. Kalin served in the Newman Center from 1970 to 1998, and died in 2008.
These accusations prompted another former seminarian, Wei Hsien Wan, to claim that Kalin made unwanted sexual advances to him and another man, when he was a young seminarian in 1998.
Wan said he reported Kalin the actions of a priest, two times, after which time Bruskewitz imposed restrictions on Kalin.
Wan said he doesn’t believe that the diocese is transparent. He pointed to an Aug. 4 public statement of Conley, who recognized “a report of a physical transgressions” by Kalin. Wan said that the church was aware of allegations of him and another seminarian in 1998.
“The Diocese has proven to be not capable of dealing with accusations in a responsible way,” Wan said by e-mail from his home in Malaysia.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte
The author of this story is not related to Dr. Stan Schulte.