Nebraska AG’s Office interviews men alleging abuse by Lincoln priests as diocese conducts own review

LINCOLN — It appears that victims of alleged abuse by Lincoln Diocese priests may get something they have been asking for — an independent investigation of their complaints.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is talking to those who say they were abused by priests, The World-Herald was told.

Jeff Hoover, who said he was groped by a priest during a camping trip in the early 1980s, said he was encouraged that an investigator with the Attorney General’s Office had contacted him, saying he was “very interested in knowing what happened to you.”

Hoover and two other alleged victims interviewed by The World-Herald said they had no faith in an internal investigation of past abuse that was launched recently by Lincoln Bishop James Conley after publication of new accounts of abuse by priests within the diocese. Hoover and the others said that their reports in the past had been dismissed as unsubstantiated or “misremembering.”

“The only way that justice will be served for the past victims, and for future victims, is if we get an external investigation,” said Dr. Stan Schulte, a Lincoln chiropractor who said he was abused by a priest in the 1990s.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, Suzanne Gage, said Friday that the office does not speak about the existence of ongoing investigations. But in an Aug. 16 press release, the AG’s office asked victims to report abuse claims to the office, and said the office was committed to “pursuing criminal prosecutions of child exploitation.”

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, the Rev. Nicholas Kipper, declined to comment on news of the attorney general’s efforts, but urged anyone with allegations of abuse to contact law enforcement first, then, if they wish, to contact the diocese.

“Law enforcement is the best independent investigator,” Kipper said.

He added that Conley, in his recent letters to Lincoln Diocese parishioners, has pledged a “thorough review” of the diocese’s safe environment policies and procedures by an outside investigator. Conley has also written that the outside investigator will look into recent allegations about the pastor of Lincoln’s St. Peter’s Church.

The Rev. Charles Townsend was removed as pastor a year ago for what was described as medical reasons. In an Aug. 4 statement, Conley revealed that the priest had been transferred for “an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male, which involved alcohol.”

Conley, in a letter to all diocese parishioners, asked for forgiveness for not being more transparent in the case of Townsend — who has since resigned — but said there was no cover-up. He also pledged to be transparent going forward.

These developments come as the Catholic Church wrestles with a new wave of scandals involving abusive priests, including a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that found 300 “predator priests” that had been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children.

New allegations have surfaced in the Lincoln Diocese in recent weeks, including claims of improper “emotional and physical boundary violations” with seminarians by Monsignor Leonard Kalin, who died in 2008. Kalin has had many defenders on social media posts, and is credited with helping make the Lincoln Diocese a national leader in recruiting new priests.

A day after a former seminarian, Peter Mitchell, alleged emotional abuse by Kalin in an article on the American Conservative website, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, Wei Hsien Wan, said he was the subject of unwanted sexual advances by Kalin in 1998-99.

The elderly monsignor suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and Wan said he was one of the students who gave Kalin showers and other physical assistance to complete his duties at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Newman Center. Wan said that while assisting Kalin, he was given “sexual compliments” and was asked “to be touched in inappropriate places” and to give French kisses.

Wan, who is now a university instructor in Malaysia, said in an email that he reported incidents with Kalin twice before action was taken. He said the steps taken by then-Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz — to quietly move Kalin to an assisted living center — seemed inadequate, because he still had access to young men and his reputation in the diocese “remained intact.”

Wan said he would cooperate with any independent investigation “as the local church can no longer be trusted to hold itself accountable.”

Schulte, now 37, said he likely would not have been molested by a priest if the diocese had more thoroughly investigated the prior claims made by Hoover. Both men said they were molested by the Rev. Jim Benton, who is Schulte’s uncle. Hoover said the priest twice grabbed for his genitals while they shared a bed in a cabin during a camping trip in the 1980s. Schulte said he awoke during a sleepover at a rectory in Seward to find Benton lying on top of him, dry humping him.

Hoover said he told a priest of his incident in 1997, then reported it to directly to Bruskewitz in 2002, but was told the abuse could not be substantiated. Schulte said he went to the diocese in November to make a report after watching a documentary, “The Keepers,” which depicts abuse and a cover-up in the Catholic Church in Baltimore.

Schulte said Benton took early retirement, but the diocese told parishioners at his last parish in Minden that he left for health reasons.

Benton has previously denied that he molested anyone and did not return a phone message left Friday by The World-Herald.

Schulte said that the attorney general’s probe must go back decades, to look at whether abuse was covered up, and whether priests who might have participated in withholding information to parishioners are now in positions of power.

“We, as a diocese, deserve to know the whole truth. We deserve to know what happened in those years,” he said.

Hoover said he stopped attending Mass because of how the diocese handled his reports of abuse.

“If the church and the bishop really want to help (now), and open up the files, that’s more than great,” Hoover said. “That’s what they should do.”

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