In a listening session at a local church in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop James Conley updated members of his diocese on a review of policies for handling allegations of abuse and misconduct by priests.
“This transparency and objectivity I promise you will include a thorough review of our safe environment policies and procedures by an outside investigator,” he said Aug. 10 to those gathered at St. Wenceslaus Church in Wahoo.
The bishop responded to several allegations against priests in the Diocese of Lincoln that have recently been published online.
“These allegations have already resulted in the start of a thorough review of our policies and procedures regarding how we respond to allegations made against diocesan priests.”
Conley said that he has presented several cases to the Diocesan Review Board, and is continuing to meet with the board for further counsel. He has assembled a group of senior advisors — including staff members, a mental health expert, and officials from the Archdiocese of Omaha — to help evaluate allegations of abuse.
He has also held several listening sessions at parishes affected by recent allegations against priests.
Conley held a listening session at St. Peter’s parish last Monday to discuss the behavior of pastor Fr. Charles Townsend. He said the message from the 500 attendees was clear: “they desire transparency and objectivity, and that is my promise to you and all the faithful in the diocese as I move forward.”
The bishop had previously addressed the allegations against Townsend in an Aug. 4 letter, saying that last year he “received a report that Fr. Townsend had developed an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male which involved alcohol.”
Upon receiving the report, he said that he immediately withdrew Townsend from ministry and sent him to a treatment center in Houston before allowing him to return to ministry.
Conley said that he attempted to act with integrity, telling the parishioners that the priest had gone away for health reasons. But while he did not cover up the situation or oblige anyone to keep silent about it, he said he regrets failing to act with more transparency.
“Even though we were not legally obligated to report the incident, it would have been the prudent thing to do. Because the young man had reached the age of majority, we did not tell his parents about the incident.”
In his Aug. 4 letter, Bishop Conley said that he had removed Fr. Townsend from ministry in order to consult with the diocesan review board, reported the incident to civil authorities, and met with the young man and his parents to ask for forgiveness.
At the Aug. 10 listening session, Conley said that Fr. Townsend has now resigned his pastorate.
“The matter has been reported to authorities and is being investigated,” he said. The investigations will look into Townsend’s behavior, as well as the response of Bishop Conley and his staff.
Conley said that he cannot comment further while the civil and Church investigations are underway, but will offer an update when they have concluded.
The bishop also discussed three other diocesan priests. He said that he is concerned by the behavior of Fr. Patrick Barvick, whom he had previously instructed not to be alone with women. He has asked the priest to step aside from the parish temporarily while he evaluates the situation.
Fr. Steve Thomlison has submitted his resignation as pastor of St. Stephen in Exeter and St. Wenceslaus in Milligan, Conley continued. The resignation came during a meeting “to discuss a past incident in the military that was a concern.”
Conley clarified that the incident did not involve an offense against a minor or a parishioner, and that Thomlison received an honorable discharge from the military.
“I am committed to getting Father the care he needs. Please join me in praying for Father Thomlison,” the bishop said.
He also addressed the case of now-retired priest Fr. James Benton, who was accused in 2002 of touching a minor inappropriately during a camping trip that had taken place during the early 1980s.
“That matter was fully investigated by the Lincoln Diocese. The allegations could not be substantiated,” Conley said.
In the fall of last year, Fr. Benton resigned his pastorate after being accused of sexually abusing two family members more than 25 years prior, he said.
Conley said the allegations were handled by the Diocesan Review Board and referred to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which returned the matter to the bishop to take action.
He said he prohibited Benton from exercising public ministry in the diocese and restricted him from being alone with minors. The priest is now retired.
Bishop Conley reiterated his commitment to transparency and encouraged anyone who has experienced abuse by a member of the diocese to file a report with law enforcement authorities.
“I want to repeat to you that I am sorry for the manner in which I have responded to allegations of improper behavior brought against Lincoln priests,” he said. “I hope you forgive me.”
J.D. Flynn, editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, previously served as special assistant to Bishop Conley and director of communications for the Lincoln diocese. Flynn has recused himself from coverage of this story to avoid a conflict-of-interest. He was not involved in the assigning, reporting, editing or oversight of this story.