It’s been a turbulent month so far for Lincoln’s Catholic leaders, who are facing fire for their mishandling of three priests accused of sexual assault, moral misconduct and an inappropriate relationship with an altar server.
The allegations span two decades, but they only recently surfaced broadly and publicly in a wave of online articles and Facebook posts.
The fallout has been swift. The allegations led to a police investigation. They prompted the bishop to remove a priest, apologize for a lack of transparency, convene a review board and address a church full of parishioners in a closed meeting.
And they’ve brought uncomfortable scrutiny to a diocese often considered the nation’s most orthodox.
“These stories have caused a great amount of distress for many of you, for many of our priests, and for me as well,” Bishop James Conley said in an Aug. 4 open letter to the 97,000 Catholics in the diocese. "Many of you have questions about the veracity of these stories, and many of you are concerned that you have been lied to.”
The cases aren’t directly related, though they struck the diocese in rapid succession. An Aug. 1 blog post revealed the first accusation, which begat another, and another.
But some former seminarians, priests and parishioners see the allegations as separate threads woven into a bigger web — of abuse, secrecy and the protection of priests.
Like Stan Schulte, a 37-year-old Lincoln native who said he was abused by a priest as an adolescent. He didn’t report it until years later, but said an earlier victim had already alerted another priest, who did nothing.
“Had the priest who was told about that reported it at the time, and had the diocese taken action, I wouldn’t have been molested,” he told writer Rod Dreher, who told Schulte’s story Monday on The American Conservative’s website.
And like Peter Mitchell, a seminarian in the late 1990s whose own essay on The American Conservative site Aug. 1 started this all.
He painted a picture of the booze-fueled gambling parties and sexualized behavior of the Monsignor Leonard Kalin, the director of vocation for the diocese and longtime pastor at the campus Newman Center who died in 2008.
He complained to the bishop at the time, he wrote, calling the fraternization both disturbing and “detrimental to formation for the priesthood.”
“I received no official reply to my complaint, but a few weeks later another seminarian called me aside and told me that Kalin himself had informed the seminarians close to him that I had complained and instructed them to watch me to see if I would be ‘loyal,’” he wrote.
Even Conley, the bishop, acknowledged the diocese hadn’t been fully forthcoming in the case of a priest at St. Peter’s who was reported to be in a non-sexual but inappropriate relationship with a 19-year-old.
Conley sent him to treatment in Texas last year. But he didn’t disclose why. Nor did he tell the young man’s parents the priest had supplied him alcohol, or report it to the police.
“Our priests and the parishioners of St. Peter’s were told that he went away for health reasons. I made no effort to ‘cover-up’ any element of this situation, and I tried to address it with integrity,” he wrote in his open letter. “However, I did not encourage transparency.”
Peter Mitchell was 20 when he arrived in Lincoln to be a seminarian. He was told he needed to follow Kalin’s direction if he wanted to become a priest.
“Kalin had a widespread reputation for heavy drinking, chain-smoking, frequent gambling, and basically modeling addictive behaviors to the young people whom he was set over as pastor and vocation director,” he wrote in his Aug. 1 essay.
He described Kalin taking seminarians on party trips to Las Vegas, South Padre Island and the Jersey Shore.
“Seminarians were not-so-subtly pressured to attend and join in his gambling, drinking, and late-night fraternizing,” he wrote.
But he also wrote that Kalin — who suffered from Parkinson’s disease — would select a seminarian to help him in the shower. Mitchell managed to avoid that duty, he wrote, but he knew “that the men who did — and there were many — endured Kalin’s attempts to initiate sexual contact with them.”
His essay generated more than 120 comments, many from writers who said they were seminarians during the same era as Mitchell. And many disputed his account, defending Kalin and his reputation.
“The best priests I know were formed by him,” one wrote. “I saw absolutely nothing during my time at the Newman Center to validate the claims made by this ex-priest.”
But Mitchell’s story was supported by Wan We Hsien, a seminarian in 1998. He was one of those men tasked with showering Kalin and helping the monsignor into bed, he wrote in a letter to the bishop he posted on his Facebook page.
Kalin made unwanted sexual advances toward him and another seminarian who also shared the responsibility, he wrote. “These gestures included verbal sexual compliments, asking to be touched in inappropriate places, and molestation, including repeated requests for French kisses.”
He reported Kalin’s actions to a priest twice, he wrote. He was in a confessional the second time, so the priest asked permission to relay the complaint to the bishop.
“The bishop definitely imposed restrictions after the second time,” Wan Wei Hsien told the Journal Star. He wrote that he learned that then-Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz ordered two men to accompany Kalin at the same time.
Kalin retired that year.
In a statement last week, the diocese said it addressed the allegations of misconduct directly with Kalin at the time, and wasn’t aware of any violations of law by the monsignor.
And in his open letter, Conley acknowledged the diocese fielded a single complaint against Kalin — a physical boundary violation in 1998. But he left open the door for more.
“We are continuing to gather information about these recent allegations,” he wrote.
Schulte was at a sleepover on the rectory floor in Seward when he woke to a priest on top of him, he told The American Conservative.
He threw the man off, he said, and spent the rest of the night awake in a chair.
“I wanted to get my brother and run out of there, but I was a minor,” he told Dreher, The American Conservative blogger. “What was I supposed to do? As a kid, you’re taught not to go against priests. You feel like you’re the bad person.”
He buried the memory for more than two decades, but it resurfaced last year, when he watched “The Keepers,” a documentary depicting abuse, murder and Catholic cover-up in Baltimore.
So Schulte reported to the diocese what had happened to him. In the years since the sleepover, the priest had been sent away from his parish in 2000 for undisclosed health reasons, the magazine reported, and was now retired.
The 71-year-old priest denied the assault, according to a letter from the diocese to Schulte. Still, after an investigation, the bishop levied multiple restrictions against the priest:
He’ll remain retired and not be given a ministerial assignment. He’ll remain at a home for retired priests. He won’t be allowed to offer sacramental assistance in parish churches, like other retired priests. He won’t be allowed to be alone with minors. He can’t sleep in a private home without permission. And he can’t post photos of children on Facebook.
The diocese also offered Schulte $3,000 to pay for any counseling, according to the post.
But it didn’t tell the public why the priest had been removed from his ministry, or about the sexual assault allegation made against him.
Schulte came forward after reading Mitchell’s essay, and seeing responses from others in the diocese.
He didn’t want more people to suffer.
“How many priests like him are still in a position of power? How many other children are still vulnerable? How many priests who have allegations against them have moved up in the ranks, and stayed quiet to protect each other?”
Schulte’s story wasn’t the only one inspired by Mitchell’s essay.
After it published, a commenter left a detailed account of an emotional relationship between Charles Townsend, the pastor at St. Peter’s, and an altar server.
The priest was accused of getting the young man drunk and behaving inappropriately, though non-sexually.
Last year, Bishop Conley sent Townsend away for treatment at a religious center in Texas. But priests and parishioners were told he left for health reasons. The altar server’s parents weren’t told about the incident because the 19-year-old wasn’t a minor, Conley said in his open letter, and the police weren’t notified.
Aug. 4 letter to parishioners from Bishop James Conley addressing concerns about priest conduct.
Townsend returned a few months later and served St. Peter’s until last week, when the diocese reversed course.
Conley removed the priest. He asked the server’s parents for forgiveness. The diocese also alerted the police department, which acknowledged an investigation this week but declined to comment.
In his open letter, the bishop said he never ordered people to keep quiet, but he could have handled it differently.
“I did not encourage an open discussion about this situation with our priests, with parishioners, or with those involved.”
The bishop met with St. Peter’s church members Monday night in a gathering closed to non-parishioners, though someone left an account on The American Conservative’s blog.
The commenter described it as an emotional meeting.
“We demanded transparency,” the parishioner wrote. “We demanded Bishop Conley put the parishioners and children above the predatory priests.”
In his letter, Conley announced he was convening the diocesan review board, an independent group of lay people — experts in law enforcement and psychology — to investigate the Kalin case and other abuse allegations.
He also encouraged anyone with information about those allegations, or others, to talk to the diocesan safe environment coordinator.
“Please be assured,” he wrote, “I will take all necessary steps to hold accountable anyone responsible for placing people in unsafe situations within the church.”
But Schulte believes more needs to be done.
First, victims need a safe, neutral place to report abuse — not someone with deep church ties who might be inclined to protect the institution.
“They haven’t given us reason to trust them, and these cases coming forward are the reason why,” he said.
And that’s also why he believes church members in every parish need to get involved, he said. He encouraged them to hold the diocese accountable and examine every instance where a priest left for so-called health reasons or was removed without explanation.
“The parishioners themselves, they need to realize they are powerful to make something happen,” he said. “We have sat back and waited to hear what our authorities have to say. We can’t sit back anymore.”