Former Le Mars priest has most sexual abuse allegations

Thursday, March 7, 2019
Bishop R. Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City, speaks at a press conference Monday, February 25, at the diocese offices, regarding 28 priests who have had credible allegations filed against them for sexual abuse of a minor dating between 1948 and 1995. Those names have been released by the diocese as one way to begin a process of healing for victims and transparency for the diocese.
(Sentinel Photo by Beverly Van Buskirk)

SIOUX CITY — In a press conference Monday, February 25, 2019, the Diocese of Sioux City released a list of 28 priests who have been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors while serving in the diocese.

Bishop R. Walker Nickless, the Rev. Brad Pelzel, vicar general and moderator, and Mark Prosser, diocese review board member and police chief, City of Storm Lake, addressed the issue as it has evolved in the diocese.

“Today, our diocese will reckon with part of its own shameful history by releasing the names of 28 priests credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors,” Nickless said Monday.

“On behalf of the church, I am profoundly sorry and apologize to each victim. I am grateful for the courage each victim has demonstrated by coming forward and I am committed to helping each of them heal,” offered Nickless. “Publishing this list is the beginning of a new chapter in the history of our diocese. We want it to usher n a climate of openness and transparency, resulting in the protection of our youth and accountability for clergy and church leaders.”

The report was created over the past several months by the seven-member Diocesan Review Board, partnering with the diocese.

While most of the priests have only one or several allegations, one of the names on the list, the Rev. George McFadden, who now lives outside of Iowa, was found to have 39 allegations between 1960 and 1985. McFadden served as pastor at St. James Parish in Le Mars from 1972-1987.

Priests who served local area

Other priests on the list who served locally, their assignment and years of service, include:

Elmore Everette Apt — Assistant Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Granville, 1949-1951; Pastor, Assumption Parish in Merrill, 1962-1965.

Alver William Behrens — Superintendent, Gehlen Catholic High School, Le Mars, 1952-1959; Chaplain, Sacred Heart Hospital, Le Mars, 1952-1959; Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Neptune, 1959-1964; Pastor, Holy Name Parish, Marcus, 1975-1981.

Richard Wayne Birdsall — Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Remsen, 1976-1982.

Paul Joseph Bruening — Assistant Pastor, St. James Parish, Le Mars, and faculty, Gehlen Catholic High School, Le Mars, 1955-1956.

Bruce Anthony Lefebvre — Assistant Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Alton, and Faculty, Spalding High School, Granville, 1978-1983.

George Bernard McFadden — Pastor, St. James Parish, Le Mars, 1972-1987

Ronald Joseph Reicks — Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Alton, and Faculty, Spalding High School, Granville, 1992-1995.

Nicholas John Ruba — Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Alton, 1986-1992.

Laurence Frances Schoeppner — Assistant Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Granville, 1930-1932; Pastor, St. Catherine Parish, Oyens, 1953-1965.

Donald Joseph Slaven — Assistant Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Remsen, and Faculty, St. Mary Parish, Remsen, 1967-1976; Pastor St. Joseph Parish, Neptune, and Faculty, Gehlen Catholic High School, Le Mars, 1979-1984.

Donald Wiliam Wingert — Pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Neptune and Faculty, Gehlen Catholic School, Le Mars, 1967-1968.

How was review made

Nickless said, “We are all aware of the abuse within the Catholic Church, which — though happening decades ago — ignored the true purpose and ministry of the priesthood. This has resulted in a wound to the church, the body of Christ. Victims of abuse across the nation have courageously come forward, bringing accountability to priests and church officials who betrayed their positions as trusted leaders. Today, our diocese will reckon with part of its own shameful history by releasing the names of 28 priests credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors.”

He explained the Diocesan Review Board, partnering with the diocese, created this report over the past several months. A group led by the diocese’s law firm has also reviewed every priest’s file we have dating from the beginning of the diocese in 1902. The board reviewed all allegations reported to the diocese, ensuring there is no conflict of interest in investigating them. The board considered any objective information that was available, including consistency of the testimony of witnesses, accuracy of the details, such as the placement of the accused at the time the allegation is said to have taken place and physical evidence. In addition, the board considered other corroborating evidence from files or other possible witnesses.

Prosser said deciding who was placed on the list, especially against priests who are deceased or who strongly denied the accusations, was difficult. He then explained the terms used to make the determinations.

“Sex abuse was defined as sexual conduct by a member of the clergy against a minor. For an allegation to be credible, the board considered any objective information that was available, including consistency of the testimony of witnesses, accuracy of the details, such as the placement of the accused at the time the allegation is said to have taken place, and the physical evidence.

“Also considered other corroborating evidence from files or other possible witnesses,” Prosser explained.

“The priests named have not necessarily been charged or convicted in a civil or criminal case,” he continued.

The Diocesan Review Board identified 29 priests, but one was taken off the list as the diocese received information that individual has appealed to Rome. His name is being withheld pending resolution from the Vatican. That notification came last Friday, February 22.

A “credible accusation” has been defined by the board as one that could have happened. The Bishop accepted the review boards’ recommendations in full, and each recommended priest was added to the list.

“These cases mirror national trends, starting in the late 40s and 50s, escalating in the 60s and 70s, and by the mid-80s a decline, and a long-held believe that abusers could be treated was disproven,” Prosser said. “It is important to mention, some priests mentioned in the media recently are not included on this list. The criteria for being placed on this list is a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.”

When questioned why former Bishop Laurence Soens was not on the list, it was pointed out the allegations against Soens came from when he served in Davenport, and there were no allegations against him in Sioux City.

Why now?

Nickless said there were several reasons to release the list.

“One is that the media attention given to some of the things happened nationally in our country, beginning with the Pennsylvania’s grand jury report brought up a of lot questions, what about Iowa, what are we doing in Sioux City,” he said.

“Our main focus in releasing this list now was to tell the victims that we truly believe them and that we take their word and want to do what we can to make sure that those priests who abused them will be held accountable. And we went back and forth, decided, what should we do. In the end, we all felt this would be the best approach, publish the list like other dioceses in the country and be open, transparent and honest,” he continued.

Asked if he had reached out and met with survivors of the sexual abuse, Nickless replied, “The victims are the most important, the survivors. Whenever survivors or victims want to meet with me, I meet with them. Some of them are very angry and very upset, and they don’t want anything to do with the church. But I try, in at least in some way, to connect with them, through a letter, phone call, e-mail, something like that. I’m open to any survivor who wants to talk to me.”

Nickless called the release of the list as “an attempt to be accountable, to be transparent and that we do believe them,” he said of the victims.

How does diocese respond?

Pelzel called Monday, “a difficult and painful day.”

“It is most difficult for the victims, who may relive some of the pain and anguish of long ago,’ he added.

“For those of us who became priests in the last couple of decades, the broad brush of scandal is distressing and frustrating. However, today is a defining moment in our diocese and our community as we usher in a chapter of openness, transparency and accountability. Today much has changed. Much has changed in the way the church handles an allegation of child sexual abuse or misconduct by a priest.

“First, all allegations are immediately reported to local authorities so they can be investigated. Second, allegations are shared with the review board for their independent investigation and their findings which are then given to Bishop Nickless,” Pelzel continued.

He added the diocese uses the Virtus Safe Environment Program, a process to keep children and all members of the diocese safe. These measures have been in place since 2002 and continue to be updated.

“All volunteers and employees and staff, working with the diocese, undergo a comprehensive background check, to ensure that there is no history of misconduct and prevents anyone with such a history from working within the church,” Pelzel said.

“We cannot change the past, a shameful past, but we can usher in a new chapter of openness, transparency and accountability in our diocese,” he said.

The Diocese of Sioux City connects all victims to an independent Victim Assistance Coordinator for professional support and care. She is not employed by the diocese.

In addition, since 2002, the Diocese of Sioux City has paid 58 individuals monetary settlements totaling more than $4.5 million.

“We also continue to pray each day for healing and peace for victims, comfort for their families and courage for other victims to come forward and tell us their story and/or seek professional counseling,” a background information sheet stated.

What’s next?

“We recognize reviewing and deciding whether an allegation is credible or not is an imperfect process. Today’s list is a beginning and a living document,” Prosser said.

As far as questions about past actions, Nickless said he cannot speak for what happened before he became Bishop of the Diocese of Sioux City.

“I came here in 2006, and ever since then I have worked with a wonderful group of people on our review to help determine what is the right response to victim survivors,” Nickless said.

“It’s a new chapter, a new beginning, a new threshold to open up credibility and an opportunity to do the best we can, and not worry so much about the past but what we can do in the future. What we worry about in the past, the victims and their suffering, I don’t know how that happened,” he said.

Pelzel, too, responded to the question of past actions.

“We can’t undo what happened, and the world is different than it was 40, 50 years ago. However, one of the things that specifically relates to transparency is the definition we are using, for credibly accused. Because many dioceses, not to criticize, use ‘substantially accused’ or substantiation, which is a much higher level of evidence,” Pelzel said. “We decided to take it to the threshold of ‘if it’s possible, and the victim maintains that it happened, we will believe them,’ which is a big move from a lot of places. We lowered the threshold to help people understand, particularly the victims, that we do believe them and we do trust in their reports,” Pelzel said.

The diocese has plans in place to respond to victims.

When a victim reaches out to the Diocese of Sioux City with an allegation of sexual abuse, the following steps are taken:

1. We listen to the victim and tell them, “We believe you.”

2. We call the police and also encourage the victim to contact law enforcement.

3. We contact the independent Victim Assistance Coordinator to begin providing professional support for the victim.

4. We suspend the priest from his duties as a priest until the accusation is resolved.

5. The Diocesan Review Team conducts a detailed review of the accusation to determine if it is credible.

6. If the accusation of child sexual abuse is determined to be credible, the diocese then takes the necessary disciplinary action, which could include being permanently removed from ministry.

Nickless said he and the diocese do not want anyone to suffer in silence.

Individuals who have been sexually abused by any priest, at any time, should immediately call 911 or the local authorities, as well as the Sioux City Diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 1-866-435-4397 or 712-279-5610.

“Only then can we take steps to help them heal and prevent other children from being sexually abused,” Nickless said.