Many pray that KC’s new Catholic bishop can ease the diocese’s pain from scandal

Dabora Minor of St. Mary’s Parish in St. Joseph greeted Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. at a reception Wednesday that followed his installation in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Dabora Minor of St. Mary’s Parish in St. Joseph greeted Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. at a reception Wednesday that followed his installation in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

The bishop is a fan of Johnny Cash.

One tune in particular stirs Bishop James V. Johnston, who was installed this past week as leader of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

“I think it was (first) done by Nine Inch Nails,” he said.

The song is called “Hurt.” It’s about harming one’s self. Cash’s voice breaks as he sings of addiction and a need for redemption.

Now Roman Catholics throughout northwest Missouri are praying that Johnston, as successor to Bishop Robert W. Finn, will help heal the diocese of its self-inflicted wounds.

Let’s reflect a moment on what we know about him.

Johnston, 56, was selected by Pope Francis to shepherd a diocese that in recent years has been cleaved by scandal.

The bishop has Tennessee roots, a quest for knowledge and a pastoral approach.

The late Cash’s music “is about grace and redemption,” Johnston said. “He realized in his life, ‘But for God’s grace, I’m lost. I’d be a mess.’

“Every human being has a similar story. Every life has some suffering in it.”

So there stood Johnston on Tuesday helping serve breakfast to Kansas City’s poor. It was the day before his installation next door at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

About 150 destitute people lined up, as they do four days each week. Johnston poured orange juice and listened to their stories.

Does it matter that he chose to introduce himself to Kansas City this way, in a kitchen apron alongside dozens of volunteers?

“Yes! It matters,” said Sister Mary Ann Donovan, one of those serving food at the Morning Glory Cafe. “It matters a lot.”

Especially given those wounds.

Finn resigned in April, 31 months after his criminal conviction for failing to report suspected child abuse. The diocese had waited five months to inform police that lewd pictures of pupils at a Catholic school were found on the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s computer. Ratigan has since been defrocked and sentenced to 50 years in federal prison.

At Johnston’s installation on Wednesday, he asked parishioners to support Finn with “prayer and kindness.” He did not reference the Ratigan case, the dozens of lawsuits alleging long-ago instances of sexual abuse by priests, nor specific policies he’d propose to keep children safe.

Before leaving his former post in Springfield last month, Bishop James V. Johnston offered words of encouragement to the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. (Video by Rick Montgomery, The Star.)

The diocese made strides in that direction before Finn’s resignation. Still, the homily given by Johnston didn’t go over well with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Ignoring abuse and cover-up won’t prevent abuse and cover-up,” director David Clohessy said Thursday.

But those who know this bishop said they wouldn’t expect him to issue early decrees.

As bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, he developed a reputation as a listener, not one to rush to judgment. He logged 35,000 miles a year in a Toyota navigating the Ozarks’ two-lane blacktops to get to know every parish in south Missouri.

Before giving orders here, “he wants to know us as a community,” said the Rev. Kenneth Riley, judicial vicar and moderator of the Curia for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese.

“I think he’s take-charge, but not in a bombastic, top-down way,” Riley said.

With Kansas City in a super mood over its world champion Royals, the timing of Johnston’s arrival could not have been more fortunate for the diocese.

Or for Royals fans, if you believe in the power of prayer.

Last Sunday, his first night residing in the downtown chancery, Johnston stepped into the chapel for his evening devotions.

The Royals were down by two runs in the eighth inning.

As he told it later, “I asked for a special favor.”

We all know what happened in the ninth inning.

The diocese was worried that a Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium would conflict with Johnston’s installation and reception to follow. Nobody, including the new bishop, would want to miss the game.

So Johnston prayed for the World Series to wrap up sooner than later.

Friends and family say Johnston would never think of taking credit for Kansas City’s most celebratory night in 30 years. But he is capable on occasion of delivering a surprise.

Like when he walked away from a career in electrical engineering to become a priest.

He took the leap when he was 26. His three younger siblings didn’t see it coming.

“It was a surprise, yes, but a wonderful surprise,” said sister Amy Iverson of Knoxville, Tenn.

Johnston grew up in Knoxville, the son of a Baptist father and devoutly Catholic mother. He was called by his middle name, Vann.

The kids were raised Catholic. They attended parochial schools and for fun they would “play Mass,” said sister Beth Schmitt, also in Knoxville. “Vann, of course, was the priest, and my brother and I assisted him. Something of a foreshadowing, I guess.”

Johnston obtained his bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Tennessee. While there, “I started to ask deeper questions about what’s the most important thing in life,” he told The Star in an interview in Springfield last month.

After obtaining a master of divinity degree from the St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, in 1990 he was ordained in the Diocese of Knoxville.

There he served his early years under Bishop Anthony O’Connell, who resigned from a Florida diocese in 2002 after admitting to have sexually abused teenage boys.

“The news was terrible,” Johnston said. “He hurt a lot of people, there’s no getting around that.”

In Knoxville, Johnston also became a close friend and hiking companion of the Rev. John Dowling.

In 2002 they were hiking through Glacier National Park along with Dowling’s brother Kevin, also a priest.

They came upon a family of four near a fast-moving stream. A boy about 10 years old fell into the water and began traveling on his back toward a waterfall.

The boy’s father jumped in. His infant daughter was riding in his backpack. Now three people were headed for a 50-foot drop.

The priests formed a human chain to rescue the three.

“My brother got behind me and Vann got behind him,” John Dowling said. “Vann was the only one with his foot on the bank. I remember my brother saying, ‘Hold on, Vann.’ 

After the rescue, the priests hiked on without exchanging names with the family.

Almost three years later the Department of the Interior sent out letters notifying the priests that their heroics had earned them the department’s Citizens Award for Bravery. Johnston thought it was a gag, but no, they wound up in Washington, D.C., to be honored.

The rescued family wasn’t there. To this day Johnston and his buddies don’t know how the government got wind of the incident.

In a two-hour long Installation Mass, Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., became the seventh Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St.Joseph on Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City. Johnston, 56, was selected b

In 2008, Johnston became bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Catholics there were few and far between — about 65,000 speckled across 36 counties spanning nearly 10,000 square miles.

The southern Missouri diocese also was challenging in its economic makeup, being home to nine of the 10 poorest counties in the state.

Three achievements stand out during Johnston’s tenure:

▪ Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri came into being in 2009. Its existence proved critical two years later when the Joplin tornado left thousands homeless and, in the same season, floods ravaged towns in southeast Missouri.

Executive director Maura Taylor said Johnston’s advocacy of Catholic Charities helped give rise to programs in home repair, disaster response, homelessness prevention and veterans assistance.

“When I started in 2011, we had two other employees,” Taylor said. “We’re now over 70 employees,” with offices in five locations.

LifeHouse, a shelter for pregnant women in crisis, opened in Springfield in late 2013. Since then, 26 healthy babies have been born.

Many of the mothers live there for a year, overcoming domestic violence and drug abuse.

When Johnston visited the shelter, they held up their newborns to be blessed.

“Open, honest and steadfast,” Taylor said of the bishop. “We believe there’s a reason he’s headed up your way.”

▪ Nick Lund-Molfese of Chicago wanted to launch a Catholic worker house somewhere to provide temporary housing for the poor and raise food for communities in need.

“Bishop Johnston was the one who said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Lund-Molfese. He now lives with his family on scenic property donated by a parishioner, the 126-acre Trinity Hills Catholic Worker House and Farm east of Springfield.

The home provides respite and renewal to people with nowhere else to live, including African refugees. Trinity Hills’ farming operations have produced more than 32,000 eggs for area food pantries and charities.

▪ Last year Johnston climbed into his Toyota and embarked on a 2,000-mile trek to visit all 66 parishes in the diocese in 17 days.

From Portageville in the east to Sarcoxie in the west, “I think I’ve met every parishioner,” he said.

Johnston’s first week in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese drew hopeful reviews from rank-and-file Catholics.

“I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but I see him in the likeness of Pope Francis,” said Buchanan County public administrator Bill McMurray, a volunteer organist and longtime music instructor for several parishes.

McMurray on Tuesday attended vespers in St. Joseph, where Johnston spoke.

Pope Francis is widely regarded as more pastoral and less formal than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to whom McMurray compared Bishop Finn.

So much is about tone, said McMurray, even if the church’s policies don’t change.

“Empowering the laity is a big part of what I think (Johnston) will bring,” he said.

The early responses of local priests have also been good, said Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, which has its headquarters in Kansas City.

“What I’ve been hearing is that he’s a fantastic listener,” Coday said. “He likes to hear all sides. And once he does, he comes to a decision.”

Johnston showed some rigidity — intolerance, civil rights groups might argue — in his decision last year to publicly weigh in on an ordinance that the Springfield City Council was considering to expand nondiscrimination protections for same-sex couples.

“Do the people of Springfield really want to make criminals out of persons who are merely trying to live their faith?” he asked in a statement.

“Does the government have a compelling interest in forcing every member of our society to participate in the celebration of same-sex relationships?”

The city proposal died.

Coday said questions are apt to arise in Kansas City as to why the bishop entered that debate — especially since the issue was nondiscrimination, not the sanctity of marriage.

But for now, at least, many area parishioners seem happy, optimistic and relieved that deep divisions might be bridged.

The hundreds who filed in for Johnston’s installation laughed and applauded as if they’d been waiting years, painful years, for this moment.

As for Johnston the healer?

“Jesus is the true healer,” he said in his installation homily. “At best a bishop is merely a physician’s assistant.”

His sense of humor sneaked up on everybody when Johnston talked of transitioning from the small-town stretches of southern Missouri to his new home at the Catholic Center — in the fomer New York Life Building on West Ninth Street.

At night, he said, when he looks out over the city past the big bronze eagle affixed to the building, “I feel like Batman.”

Said longtime friend Darling: “He doesn’t put his humor out for public display very often.

“But that homily was vintage Vann. It’s what you’re going to get.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r

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