KCK archbishop says independent investigation into priest sex abuse now underway

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. File photo

Saying “transparency is imperative,” the leader of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas told area Catholics on Friday that an independent investigation into priest sex abuse is now underway.

“To ensure that we have an accurate historical knowledge of how the archdiocese has responded to allegations of misconduct, I have decided to engage an independent law firm with the expertise and staff to conduct a review of our priest personnel files going back to 1950,” Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said in a lengthy column published Friday in The Leaven, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“Transparency is imperative with any substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct by any church leader, regardless if the victim is a minor or an adult.“

Naumann did not name the law firm that is conducting the review.

The archbishop’s announcement drew sharp criticism from survivors of priest sex abuse.

“The whole idea of an independent law firm investigation is problematic,” said Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims. “When push comes to shove, their client is the archdiocese.”

Another concern, Randles said, is that without a grand jury to compel the archdiocese to turn over documents, it can cherry pick the information it wishes to provide.

“If they really wanted to be transparent,” she said, “they’d call for a grand jury investigation.”

The priest sex abuse issue erupted Aug. 14 when a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that found that church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

The report contained shocking details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for change from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Last week, Pope Francis released a 2,000-word letter admitting that the Vatican hadn’t done enough to address the issue.

In Kansas City and across the country, sex abuse victims called for authorities to conduct grand jury investigations similar to Pennsylvania’s.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that the Archdiocese of St. Louis was opening its files to his office to conduct a review of potential clergy abuse in that archdiocese. Other dioceses in Missouri, including Kansas City-St. Joseph, said they would cooperate in the investigation.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has not taken any such action, saying Kansas law places on local authorities the principal responsibility for investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse crimes. He said that his office “can assist local authorities upon their request and as resources allow — regardless of when a crime may have occurred or who may have committed it.”

Naumann did not say in his column whether he thought a state grand jury investigation was a good idea. During his tenure, he said, the archdiocese has cooperated fully with law enforcement.

“This is a decision for an attorney general to make based on whether he or she believes it is an appropriate, necessary and wise use of state resources,” he said.

Naumann also said that both the Pennsylvania grand jury report and a national study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice commissioned by the U.S. bishops in the wake of the 2002 sex abuse scandal “reveal that a high percentage of victims of clergy sexual misconduct were post-pubescent males.”

“In other words, much of the misconduct involved homosexual acts,” Naumann said. “We cannot ignore this reality. Pope Emeritus Benedict gave guidance to seminaries and vocation ministries regarding the nonacceptance for priestly formation those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. All candidates for the seminary have to be able to give evidence for their capacity of living celibate chastity with both integrity and joy.”

That statement incensed Randles and some survivors of priest sexual abuse, who said it appeared to blame the victims.

“As a matter of fact, a majority of those priests will tell you that they are heterosexual,” Randles said. “The whole issue of the children being over the age of puberty, that doesn’t vitiate the fact that these are priests who hold their everlasting souls in their hands.”

In his column, Naumann blamed the current crisis on “failures of the accountability of bishops.”

“We, bishops, are sinners in need of God’s mercy,” he said. “...Please pray for me and my brother bishops as we seek to make structural reforms that will ensure greater accountability on our part.”

Naumann said he has told the priests of the archdiocese “that our people have a right to expect us to live in a manner consistent with our promise of celibate chastity.”

“As priests and bishops, we are public persons,” he said. “In addition to the higher motivation to live a holy and virtuous life, we should not do anything that we are uncomfortable with being reported to our parishioners or appearing in The Leaven and/or the secular media.”

At the same time, Naumann said, he has a responsibility to protect priests and other church employees from false accusations.

“This is why we employ an experienced and competent investigator to help us to determine to the best of our ability the truth,” he said.

Naumann, who has been a priest for 43 years, said priesthood “is not for the faint-hearted.”

“I tell our seminarians that being ordained a priest is, in effect, placing a target on your back for the devil,” he said. “Satan will do anything to strike the shepherds in order to scatter the flock... It takes courage and generosity to serve God’s people as a priest. In my travels throughout the archdiocese, I witness and am edified by the zeal and dedication of our priests.”