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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

Second meeting 'didn't go well at all'

Iowa bishops refuse victims' groups' requests regarding Bishop Soens

Des Moines, Iowa

The optimism priest abuse victims’ groups felt following a Feb. 2 meeting with Iowa bishops (NCR, Feb. 17) about the retired bishop of Sioux City, who is accused of sexual abuse, has evaporated in the wake of a subsequent meeting.

“It didn’t go well at all,” said Ann Green, speaking for the victims’ groups about the latest meeting, held Feb. 20.

A statement from the four bishops was equally glum.

“The spirit of this meeting was different as a result of media reports in which the bishops were accused of being dishonest in the previous meeting,” the statement said. It did not elaborate, and the bishops declined to return calls for further comment.

Green said she believes the bishops were referring to the groups’ statements in reports in various Iowa media during the second week of February. During the Feb. 2 meeting, she said, the victims’ group asked the bishops if there had been a church investigation into charges of abuse by Bishop Lawrence Soens, now retired after leading the Sioux City diocese from 1983 to 1998. The bishops at the Feb. 2 meeting said there had not been such an investigation.

However, the groups discovered court papers in Davenport indicating that an investigation had occurred and that Bishop William Franklin of Davenport and Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque had known about it before the Feb. 2 meeting.

Franklin defended himself in a Feb. 16 letter to his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Messenger.

“I would have no reason to purposely lie about anything, much less an investigation in which a report had already been turned over to attorneys,” Franklin wrote. “All I can say is that I have not been an active participant in any investigation and had forgotten that it had taken place almost four years ago. If my forgetfulness has offended anyone, I am sorry.”

He went on to write that he was “very saddened and hurt by the accusation that I lied to the victim advocacy groups. … I am profoundly sorry for what has happened to all victims of sexual abuse, and they remain in my prayers daily.”

A call to the Dubuque archdiocesan offices for Hanus’ comment was not returned.

The meetings between the Iowa bishops and the victims’ groups, considered to be unprecedented, were an attempt to address the concerns of the organizations of victims of priest abuse about Soens, against whom 10 claims of sexual abuse have been filed in the Davenport diocese, where he worked as a priest before becoming a bishop. Soens has denied the accusations.

The groups were concerned that Soens was traveling around Iowa participating in Catholic-sponsored events and celebrating Mass with fellow bishops. In the Feb. 2 meeting, they asked the bishops to ask Soens to refrain from having unsupervised contact with minors and inform him he is not welcome at church-sponsored events and liturgies. They asked the bishops to issue a joint statement to Iowa Catholics through church bulletins, diocesan newspapers and Web sites and the secular press on the allegations against Soens.

They also asked that the bishops inform Iowa Catholics through the same means about Iowa SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as a resource for abuse victims, and that they agree to a second meeting.

The bishops agreed to a second meeting, which was held Feb. 20, but Green said the bishops refused all their other requests.

“We were really disappointed,” she added. “We hoped for open discussion.”

The bishops were no more pleased with the exchange, according to their statement.

“The groups and the bishops disagree about how to respond to their requests regarding Bishop Soens,” the statement said. “Each bishop felt they should not respond as a group. However, individually each is willing to meet again with representatives of the advocacy groups. The advocacy groups were informed that allegations regarding Bishop Soens have been sent by the bishop of Davenport to the papal nuncio,” the pope’s representative in the United States.

The groups include Catholics for Spiritual Healing of Grand Mound, Iowa; Concerned Catholics of the Davenport Diocese, based in Iowa City; and Iowa SNAP. At the most recent meeting, the groups’ representatives met with Franklin and Hanus, Des Moines Bishop Joseph Charron and Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City. Nickless, who was ordained bishop of Sioux City Jan. 20, was unable to attend the first meeting because of the death of his mother.

At the Feb. 20 meeting, Green said, the bishops were upset “that we breached confidentiality by discussing with the press what happened,” at the first meeting. “We never agreed to [confidentiality],” she said.

She said the groups asked for confidentiality for survivors of abuse, “not about working in secrecy with the bishops. That would perpetuate that code they have operated with for years.”

The bishops’ statement says the church is concerned about sexual abuse by priests and for the welfare of victims.

“Each Iowa diocese has implemented extensive safe environment programs for the protection of children and for outreach to victims,” it said. “Each diocese remains committed to protecting children. Each bishop remains committed to meeting individually with victims.”

In an e-mail to NCR several days after the Feb. 20 meeting, Des Moines’ Charron said he felt bad that communication had broken down.

“I wish it could have been more positive,” he said. “However, I do not believe that the end of the Feb. 20 meeting was a brick wall. Rather, it led to another road -- toward four roads of working with the bishops individually. It’s a more effective way to go.”

Tom Carney was an editor and writer for The Des Moines Register for 22 years. He is now a media consultant in Des Moines.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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