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Decades Later, KC Dioceses Strive to Focus on Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Priests Embracing ‘Trauma-informed Care’ 

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Above image credit: Blue ribbons and pinwheels were part of the displays in the vestibule of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City. The items were for those who attended the Diocesan Day of Prayer in Atonement for those Harmed by Sexual Abuse, a service that was led by Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)
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5 minute read

Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., stood on the altar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, flanked by about a dozen Catholic deacons and priests.

Since 2016, Johnston has led a service to offer the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s commitment, prayers and atonement to those harmed by clergy sexual abuse.

The choir from St. Pius X High School sang at this year’s April 26 service, a Tuesday afternoon. 

The Hope Box, a simple wooden container, was available for people to place written personal petitions of their pain and hopes for healing. Blue pinwheels, a national symbol of childhood innocence often used at child abuse prevention events, were displayed in the vestibule. 

The Diocesan Day of Prayer in Atonement was livestreamed, just one of many attempts to reach as many people as possible with the service, but especially survivors of priest sexual abuse who often say they feel too traumatized or triggered to enter a Catholic church.

The bishop personally greeted each person in attendance as they exited.

The locked “Hope Box” is kept in the office of Carrie Cooper, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Since 2016, survivors have been invited to write their personal thoughts, statements of pain and hope to be blessed by the bishop and then placed into the sealed box.
The locked “Hope Box” is kept in the office of Carrie Cooper, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Since 2016, survivors have been invited to write their personal thoughts, statements of pain and hope to be blessed by the bishop and then placed into the sealed box. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

All of it was part of evolving survivor-centered efforts by the church, using the latest in best practices for trauma-informed care.

But within days, news broke that yet another priest, this time not under Johnston’s watch, but from the diocese across the state line in Kansas, had been accused inappropriate sexual behavior with a child.

Local media carried the story. And for many area Catholics, the news triggered emotions of the priest child abuse scandals that years ago resulted in multiple million-dollar settlements, a well-publicized civil trial and even the resignation of Johnston’s predecessor.

And then, seemingly just as fast, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, announced that Father Michael Scully had been cleared of the allegations. Only 72 hours had passed.

Longtime advocates for clergy sexual abuse survivors were outraged. Word had not spread widely enough, they charged, for other possible other victims to come forward.

“Most victims stay silent for decades,” said David Clohessy, an advocate with Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests, or SNAP, which made the allegations known to media.

“But those who do speak up often act when they see evidence that their disclosure might make a difference,” Clohessy said. “So the weeks and months after a suspended or suspected predator is disclosed is a key period.”

“When that period is extremely short, that gives little opportunity for victims – and witnesses and whistleblowers – to find the courage to step forward,” he said.

Scully had been assigned to Haskell Indian Nations University Catholic Campus Center in Lawrence. But he’d previously served a parish in Eudora and another in Lawrence.

The claims against him that were ruled to be unsubstantiated were complicated by the fact that he is a member of a religious order, which has its own protocols and standards for announcing allegations.

But a spokesperson for the Kansas Diocese said that along with announcing the allegation in the diocesan newspaper, The Leaven, other rules call for announcing the news at local parishes during mass and putting it in bulletins. Notices are also sent to the media.

For SNAP, and others who remain deeply suspicious of the church as an institution, the recent case reinforced their belief that not enough has changed with how the hierarchy of the Catholic faith functions when facing complaints about clergy.

“Is the worst really behind us?” Clohessy said. “That’s what Catholics want to believe.”

The answer, he said, is unknown.

“At best, it is simply too early to tell,” he said. “And at worst, it hasn’t led to that much change.”

‘This Work is Never Done’

Measuring progress, trying to determine if a provable “peak” was ever reached in abuse claims, is difficult. 

Rather, the role the church sees for itself has grown and shifted.

“What are we doing to really meet people where they are,” said Carrie Cooper, director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the Diocese of Kansas Cit-St. Joseph. “This work is never done. It’s a continuing ministry.”

Apart from protocols to report allegations, there’s more emphasis on healing and restoration, through survivor-focused efforts based on the latest and best practices in trauma-informed care. 

The two dioceses in this area can point to a long list of new programing and new hires, to suggest improved approaches.

The recent service of atonement did result in more people contacting the Kansas City Diocese for various reasons, not necessarily all from survivors, Cooper said.

June marks the 20th anniversary of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was the first time that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops laid out a set of detailed procedures for addressing sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Bishop Johnston is chairman of a committee of U.S. bishops who are updating those protocols, which were last revised in 2018.

 And a 10-year report, an audit of the work of Cooper’s office, will be released in the fall.

Staff who originated on the Missouri side in Cooper’s office are now working in the Kansas Diocese, managing programming there.

Journey to Bethany is the newest program of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. 

Led by non-clergy, the office holds community conversations, arranges for counseling and also very specific, individualized actions for anyone who seeks help in healing, said Jennifer Prusa, director of the program.

“How do you qualify healing?” said Whitney True-Francis, victim assistance coordinator. “It requires the church as an institution to sit in a gray space and to really meet survivors.”

But there are also pressures outside of the church.

About 20 state attorney generals, including in Kansas and Missouri, asked for deeper investigations of church doings, going over past and any new allegations. 

Increasingly, states are reforming statute of limitations and other laws that have long kept many survivors, who often come forward as adults, from being able to hold a priest accountable for abuse that occurred years prior, such as when a person was a child, an altar boy.

“Victims should not be time-barred from justice,” said Michael W. McDonnell, a survivor in Philadelphia, who now works with SNAP as a national communications manager.

Stories of Survivors

But it’s proving more difficult to pass such legislation in red states or those with heavy lobbying by the Catholic church. The insurance industry has also pushed back, McDonnell said.

Missouri State Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Kansas City, introduced two such bills during the legislative session that will conclude this week. Neither is expected to pass.

Arthur said the goal is to remove the barriers that previously made it difficult to hold an institution such as the church accountable, beyond the guilt of an individual priest. The reason is the widely documented fact that church hierarchy too often simply evaded responsibility, or worse, denied and then hid the abuse.

“I really try to make a focus of my work to be looking out for marginalized and vulnerable community members,” Arthur said in an interview as her office was still fine tuning the language of her two bills.

Arthur first discussed the bills in public last fall, after a local screening of the new documentary “Procession,” prior to the film’s release.

The documentary shows the healing journey of six Midwestern survivors of priest sexual abuse. Most experienced the abuse in the Greater Kansas City area. Each man tells his story, in many cases revisiting where the abuse occurred.

The film by Robert Greene was recently nominated for a Peabody Award.

Bishop Johnston approved the use of several local parishes for some of the filming. The men are shown in St. Elizabeth’s and Our Lady of Peace. And the diocese has shown the film to its independent review board, which is a committee of non-clergy who help assess allegations.

The decision to participate, to open the local parishes for filming wasn’t difficult, Cooper said.

 The reason was simple. It aligned with a survivor-centered approach.

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.


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