Bishop James Conley of Lincoln said he is working to ensure that correct processes are established and followed when allegations of boundary violations arise against priests in the diocese.
In an Aug. 4 letter, Conley apologized for failures in transparency when dealing with past allegations.
“During the past week, I have experienced profound sadness for anyone impacted by these situations and I have been weighed down with concern about the potential betrayal of the good people of this diocese,” he said. “Most deeply, I am reminded of our need for continual conversion.”
Conley addressed reports that have recently been published online regarding Fr. Charles Townsend, pastor of St. Peter parish in Lincoln.
“Last year I received a report that Fr. Townsend had developed an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male which involved alcohol,” Conley said. 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.
“Despite reports to the contrary, I did not oblige anyone to keep silent about this matter,” the bishop continued. “Our priests and the parishioners of St. Peter’s were told that he went away for health reasons. I made no effort to ‘cover-up’ any element of this situation, and I tried to address it with integrity.”
However, Bishop Conley said that he failed to act with the transparency, something that he “deeply regret[s].”
“I did not encourage an open discussion about this situation with our priests, with parishioners, or with those involved,” the bishop said. “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.”
This past week, Conley said, he removed Fr. Townsend from ministry “so that I might consult with our diocesan review board about his situation.” He also reported the incident to civil authorities, appointed a new pastor for St. Peter parish, and met with the young man and his parents to ask for forgiveness.
Conley also discussed reports last week about former diocesan vocations director Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who died in 2008. While Kalin was beloved and revered by many in the diocese, allegations have been raised of immorality and misconduct with seminarians.
“The diocese received one report of a physical boundary violation by Msgr. Kalin, in 1998. We are continuing to gather information about these recent allegations,” the bishop said, encouraging anyone with information to contact the diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator.
Both cases will be investigated by the diocesan review board, which consists of lay experts in psychology and law enforcement investigation, Conley said. “Please be assured, I will take all necessary steps to hold accountable anyone responsible for placing people in unsafe situations within the Church.”
The bishop said the recent reports have prompted him to think about how the diocese handles the moral failings of its priests.
“I am working to rectify my failures to ensure that we consult appropriately and act with transparency in any matter involving a boundary violation,” he said. “As your bishop, I have asked the Lord for wisdom, holiness, courage, and good judgment. I have tried to do my best to lead with integrity. But, like everyone, there is always more for me to learn, and ways to grow, and I ask for your prayers.”
Conley said he prays that truth and transparency will be able to break through division and distress among the faithful.
“Christ promises that the truth will set us free. I ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for me, as I work to ensure that our diocese is led with integrity, transparency, and humility. Let us pray for each other.”
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.