Kansas investigating sexual abuse claims in breakaway Society of St. Pius X

Econe Seminary International Seminary of Saint Pius X, in Écône, Switzerland. | DICI/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4.0

The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is under investigation in Kansas, amid allegations that members of the group perpetrated or covered up clerical sex abuse in the state.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) confirmed to CNA on Monday that it is examining clergy abuse allegations made against the group, as part of its investigation into the four Kansas Catholic dioceses. The SSPX is not overseen by any diocese in Kansas, or elsewhere, because of its irregular status in the Church.

A breakaway traditionalist group, the SSPX was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. When Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops without the permission of St. John Paul II in 1988, the bishops involved were excommunicated.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the surviving bishops, while noting that "doctrinal questions obviously remain and until they are clarified the Society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry."

The group has been in intermittent talks with the Vatican about returning to full communion with the Church. In 2015, Pope Francis extended the faculty to hear confession to priests of the society as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

In the group's U.S. district, however, a number of abuse allegations have surfaced in relation to the large SSPX community at St. Mary's, Kansas, which includes the society's K-12 school.

In its ongoing investigation of Catholic clergy abuse in Kansas, a KBI spokeswoman said the bureau has received 186 reports of abuse and had opened 112 investigations. She did not indicate how many relate directly to the SSPX.

Jassy Jacas told CNA that her family had been involved with the SSPX since she was eight years old; she attended the Society's St. Mary's Academy and College, volunteering in the "tight-knit" community of St. Mary's.

She told CNA she met with a priest of the society, Fr. Pierre Duverger, in Kansas City and in St. Mary's in late 2013 and early 2014, to talk about serial sexual abuse committed against her by a family member while she was a child.  When she met with the priest, a decade had passed since the abuse, and Jacas was 22 years old.

Jacas said Fr. Duverger soon began asking her sexually explicit questions that made her uncomfortable, and reportedly asked her to email him details of the abuse that had occurred, along with her sexual thoughts and temptations. He instructed her to text or call him, "especially in times of temptation."

"I want to help you understand sin," he reportedly told her.

Eventually, he told her he was going to visit his mother in France, Jacas said. The priest did not respond to her subsequent attempts to reach him.

Jacas said that in early 2018, she met a Catholic therapist who recognized Fr. Duverger's name. Jacas was put in touch with another alleged victim of the priest. Jacas said the other victim was allegedly instructed by Fr. Duverger to perform a sexual act while he watched via Facetime.

Jacas submitted a report documenting her concerns to the Society, and contacted Fr. Gerald Beck, assistant to the U.S. district superior for the SSPX. She said she met with Fr. Beck in April 2018.

She says she was told during that meeting that Duverger was already under some restrictions due to another situation of "imprudence" with a woman, and that an investigation of him would be likely. According to Jacas, Beck told her that he would talk about her case with two other priests in the SSPX.

After she waited for weeks to hear from Beck, Jacas said she contacted him again; he reportedly reassured her that he took her claims seriously, and that Duverger "had little contact with the faithful" and was in poor health.

Nevertheless, Jacas said she learned in November 2019 that Duverger was serving as principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Sanford, Florida. She also knew that he had led a Christ the King procession at St. Mary's in Kansas.

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Jacas eventually met with U.S. district superior Fr. Jürgen Wegner in December, and presented her concerns about Fr. Duverger. She said she was told that no investigation of Duverger had been conducted, only that the priest had been giving "apostolic restrictions" - prohibited from hearing the confessions of women or giving them spiritual direction. Fr. Wegner told her he would travel to Florida to see for himself if anything else could be done at the school to protect children.

After that meeting, Jacas saw a flyer at the SSPX chapel in St. Mary's, advertising a pilgrimage in France led by Fr. Duverger. "It hit me then that the restrictions were not as severe as Fr Wegner led me to believe," she told CNA. Jacas took a picture of the flyer and sent it to Fr. Wegner.

She said she also saw pictures on Facebook of Duverger at camps for children. She contacted friends in Florida who told her that Fr. Duverger worked with an all-female faculty at a school and had contact with children, playing with them at recess, going for walks with them, and hosting them in his office.

In January 2020, Jacas sent Fr. Davide Pagliarani, superior general of the SSPX, her email exchanges with the SSPX priests and told him that no investigation had been conducted of Fr. Duverger. She said she was told by his secretary in response that "he [Pagliarani] measures your sorrow, however, the decision is still Fr. Wegner's."

Jacas said that, meanwhile, Fr. Wegner told her he did not have power to remove Duverger from his position. She said she would go public with her story.

On Jan. 19, she posted her story on Facebook. Jacas said that communications staff for the SSPX contacted her family before she made the post, trying to reach her, expressing sympathy for her yet attempting to dissuade her from posting her story publicly.

After she posted her story, Jacas said she has heard from other alleged victims with "different situations, all over the states." She also learned of the KBI investigation into the SSPX, and she reached out to agents at the bureau. She said she was told a half dozen agents were part of the investigation in Kansas, as of May 1.

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On May 19, Durverger is still listed on SSPX websites as principal of St. Thomas More Academy.

Abuse allegations made against the SSPX were reported by the website Church Militant on April 22. Some accusations reported by the site had initially been reported by Fidelity Magazine in the 1990s, or in other publications.

The site said it had spoken with Fr. John Rizzo, FSSP--formerly an SSPX priest--as well as Theresa Gonzalez and Kyle White who claimed an immediate relation to victims of SSPX priests. The site also suggested that in addition to sexual abuse or misconduct, priests of the SSPX had caused harm to marriages or families through manipulative behavior.

On May 17, the Kansas City Star reported that the KBI was examining claims made by a number of other alleged victims of society priests. According to the newspaper, the SSPX was working with law enforcement officials to provide documentation requested in the investigation.

An April 28 communique of the SSPX U.S. district stated in response to the Church Militant report that the Society "is committed to transparency," and that "[j]ustice is dispensed impartially and according to the rules of law, not before a 'media court' that exclusively investigates charges and distils its information with the aim of dividing or destroying, and by multiplying false and malicious insinuations."

The Church Militant articles "mix and match real facts with false or unbelievable accusations, in an abhorrent manner," the SSPX stated, noting that it had put a "protection plan" in place for abuse victims.

"The society deeply regrets that some of its members may have engaged in serious misconduct and, in the worst cases, criminal or delinquent behavior," the communique stated, noting that the society could exercise various punitive tools through canonical procedures.

These punishments could include "deprivation of office, times of probation and penance, restrictions or prohibitions of apostolate, suspension a divinis, reduction ad missam, resignation or dismissal, and even laicization, if necessary."

"For the most serious cases, which could constitute crimes or felonies, it collaborates with the civil authorities, either by warning them or by sharing the elements in its possession," the SSPX stated.

The SSPX said it "has experienced several cases of false accusations by unbalanced or self-seeking persons."

Because the Society of St. Pius X is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, its administrative governance is not overseen by diocesan bishops, Vatican offices, or any authorities outside its own hierarchical structure.

The group has announced it will form an independent review board that will include "a married couple, a civil lawyer, a doctor, and a canonist priest." Further details have not yet been forthcoming.

The SSPX has not yet responded to requests from CNA for comment.

The Archdiocese of Kansas-City, in which St. Mary's is located, declined to comment on questions from CNA.

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