Nebraska Catholic diocese rocked by old abuse allegations
By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. — For more than a decade, a conservative Catholic diocese in Nebraska was the only church in the U.S. that refused to participate in annual reviews of sexual misconduct that were a key reform enacted in the wake of the 2002 Boston clergy abuse scandal.
As a new wave of abuse scandals rock the Roman Catholic church, critics say the Diocese of Lincoln is now paying the price for its unwillingness to change and lack of transparency.
Accusers have been coming forward in recent weeks with allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy in Nebraska, and the diocese is facing a potential criminal investigation and criticism that it mishandled abusive priests even as it should have been subjected to increased scrutiny after the Boston scandal.
From 2002 to 2015, leaders of the Lincoln diocese refused to participate in annual audits designed to uncover sex abuse allegations and gauge how well church officials were complying with child-protection policies. Church leaders called the audits a pointless endeavor that assumed wrongdoing by the diocese and its priests, but one of the bishops during that period knew of at least two allegations against priests, according to interviews and a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
“I think the closed nature of the diocese made this worse,” said Rachel Pokora, a member of the Catholic reformist group Call to Action. “Even if the audits never revealed anything — and I think they probably would have — it still shows an unwillingness to be open.”
The Nebraska attorney general’s office has spoken with at least two accusers and urged others to come forward about abuse in the diocese. Lincoln police are also investigating a priest accused of having an “emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship” with a 19-year-old male altar server that involved alcohol in 2017, church officials said.
A Lincoln police spokesman confirmed the investigation but declined to comment further. On Wednesday, the diocese unveiled a new, anonymous hotline and website to take complaints.
The scandals come amid accusations that Pope Francis was complicit in the face of sex-abuse allegations against a former high-ranking cardinal in Washington, D.C., and a grand jury investigation that identified more than 1,000 child victims in Pennsylvania.
Many of the new allegations in Lincoln focus on the actions of the Rev. James Benton, a 71-year-old priest who retired last year despite church leaders knowing about abuse allegations against him for at least 15 years.