Iowa attorney general releases report on clergy sex abuse

Iowa_State_Capitol_building_in_Des_Moines_Credit_Henryk_Sadura_Shutterstock.jpg The Iowa capitol. Credit: Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock.

The Iowa Attorney General’s office has released a 30-page report on sexual abuse by members of the clergy, almost exactly two years after the bishops agreed to release their records regarding sex abuse in their dioceses.

“Sexual abuse took place over decades. The complaints, the victims, the duration of the abuse were overwhelming,” says the June 23 report. “This is well known, but never should be minimized. Iowa is not different from the rest of the country. Our hearts go out to the victims of these acts. The consequences are severe and lifelong.”

The report also states that “the cover-up was extensive,” and that “the image and reputation of the church were put ahead of the enormous harm to young people.” 

However, the report did offer praise for the Charter for the Protection of Children, the 2002 document adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“In response to the Charter for the Protection of Children as adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in June of 2002, the Dioceses have put policies and procedures in place for the protection of children from clergy abuse,” said the report. 

“This has led to several changes in the Church, evident by the reports of clergy abuse since 2002. Only five priests have been the subject of allegations for actions that occurred during or after 2002.”

The report noted that none of Iowa’s four bishops--Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque, along with Bishops Walker Nickless of Sioux City, William Joensen of Des Moines, and Thomas Zinkula of Davenport--were “involved in handling previous complaints and resulting cover-ups,” and that all four were “relatively new to their positions.”

“In other states, questions have been raised about those involved in the cover-up remaining in authority and continuing those decisions,” says the report. “That is not the case in Iowa.” 

The report said the dioceses have “become more responsive to victims of clergy abuse,” adding that each diocese has information regarding how to report abuse on their websites. 

According to the report, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office received 50 complaints of clerical abuse, both by Catholic and non-Catholic clergy. Of the complaints, five involved “non-Catholic pastors or spiritual leaders,” and that in total, 36 Catholic priests or brothers were accused of sexual abuse. 

“None of the complaints involving Catholic clergy fell within the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution,” said the report. “The allegations ranged from the 1930s to 1997.” 

Although Iowa eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for filing child sex abuse charges on May 12, the new policy only applies to allegations where the statute of limitations still stands. Previously, a survivor of child sexual abuse had until 15 years after their 18th birthday to file charges. 

Of the allegations, three concerned active priests, and 29 of the complaints “named a priest or priests who are listed on one of the Diocese [sic] lists of credibly accused priests,” and an additional 17 of the complainants said they were reporting their abuse to authorities for the first time.  

Of the five non-Catholic members of the clergy who were accused, the report states that two of those reports “involve allegations within the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution,” and concern “possible adult victims.”

The report outlined the steps each diocese in the state had taken to publicize the names of abuser-priests. 

The report noted that the Diocese of Sioux City released a list of priests who were credibly accused of abusing minors on February 25, 2019, and has since added three names to the list. One of the priests was not charged with a crime, but was removed from active ministry due to a “serious boundary violation” with a minor. 

An additional priest was accused of touching a male minor in 2002. The minor, who is now an adult, was contacted by the diocese to discuss the incident, and he “stated he was satisfied” with the diocese’s handling of the complaint and did not wish to further discuss the matter. 

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“The Office thinks the Diocese has operated in good faith to prepare and update the list,” said the report, and did not offer any recommendations to the Diocese of Sioux City. 

The Archdiocese of Dubuque identified 31 priests who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, and the archdiocese provided the names of an additional eight priests who were accused of abuse, but whose accusations were not deemed credible. The Iowa Attorney General’s office reviewed these eight names, and requested additional information about two of the priests, plus information about an additional five priests who were accused of abuse by people calling a state-operated hotline or online form. 

The archdiocese provided the information in a timely manner, said the report.  

“Since agreeing to legal settlements requiring the payment of considerable compensation to clergy abuse victims and the establishment of a list of credibly accused clergy, the Office thinks the Archdiocese has generally acted in good faith to voluntarily maintain and update its list of credibly accused priests,” says the report. 

The Diocese of Davenport maintained a list of 35 priests who were credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors, and gave an additional 20 names of non-credibly accused priests to the Iowa Attorney General’s office. 

“The letter states that nearly all of the priests listed were deceased and most of them were considered as part of the Bankruptcy proceeding,” says the report. “The letter also states that the Review Board planned to look again at the investigation materials relating to three of the priests identified in the letter.” 

The state requested information about six of those 20 priests, plus that of four others who were reported to the state. The Diocese of Davenport provided information about 10 priests and the state agreed that all 20 of the non-credibly-accused priests were not credibly accused of abuse. 

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Of the four remaining priests, three were awaiting a review from the diocese’s Review Board concerning their guilt. On May 6, 2021, the Review Board found that the accusations about two of the priests were not credible, and that accusations against the other were credible. That third priest was added to the diocese’s list of credible allegations, although he had died in 1992. 

The fourth priest, who was found not guilty after a canonical process in 2016, is in active ministry. 

The report states that the Diocese of Davenport “generally acted in good faith to maintain and update its list of credibly accused clergy.” 

“The Office agrees with the Bankruptcy Court that the proper standard for all complaints of clergy abuse, including claims lodged against deceased priests, is preponderance of the evidence, not clear and convincing,” said the report. 

The report raised the most questions concerning the Diocese of Des Moines. Unlike other dioceses, who produced a list of priests who had been credibly accused of abuse, the Diocese of Des Moines listed only priests whose accusations against them were credible and substantiated. A “substantiated” claim is “one for which sufficient evidence exists to establish reasonable grounds to believe the alleged abuse occurred.” 

The Diocese of Des Moines listed nine priests on this “List of Substantiated Abuse.” 

“Compared with other dioceses, it was late in doing so,” said the report, which noted that “the Diocese did not disclose names of priests who had a single, uncorroborated allegation against them after death” as it would have been impossible to substantiate this claim. 

The diocese eventually provided a list of 19 credibly accused priests that were unable to be substantiated. Only two of the claims were listed as “public.” The Iowa Attorney General agreed that the claims against six of the priests were not able to be substantiated, and requested additional information regarding the other 13 priests, plus that of two priests who were identified as abusers through the state hotline. This information, and that regarding another recently-accused priest, was provided to the state.

The Diocese of Des Moines insisted that the priest was not guilty of the abuse of a minor, and that the person was “above the age of majority” at the time of the abuse. 

“The Office has two concerns,” regarding the Diocese of Des Moines. “The presumption in cases involving deceased priests. Complaints about deceased priests by a single complaint were not followed up on.”

Additionally, “the failure to turn over some investigative reports claiming that since they were requested by an attorney, they were protected by the attorney-client privilege” concerned the Iowa Attorney General. 

“However, the Diocese has produced a realistic list,” said the report. 

“The Office does not necessarily agree with all the determinations, especially regarding deceased priests, but those decisions are in a gray area.”

“The Office puts great significance on the Diocese’s practice of reporting all complaints to law enforcement authorities. Also, the Office notes that new leadership is in place that was not part of any previous questionable decisions,” said the report. 

A statement from the Catholic bishops of Iowa reaffirmed their commitment to keeping minors safe from sexual abuse. 

“Two years ago, the Iowa Attorney General asked the state’s four Catholic dioceses to submit documents related to clergy sexual abuse for a third-party review. In the interest of transparency and accountability, each diocese complied with the Attorney General’s request,” said the June 23 statement, which was signed by the state’s four bishops. 

The bishops wrote that they would examine the report “for suggestions on how the efforts of the Catholic Church might be improved.” 

“The Catholic Church is committed to do all that is humanly possible to protect minors from the sin and crime of clergy sexual abuse, and to promote healing,” said the bishops. “Policies and procedures in place provide for responding to each allegation, cooperating with civil authorities, removing offenders from ministry, and being held accountable.”