New bishop of KC-St.Joe believes diocese still needs healing

Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., Bishop James Johnston, the next bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese addresses the media and chancery staff at a press conference at the diocesan Catholic Center on Sept. 15, 2015 (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

Kansas City, Mo. — The soon-to-be successor of Bishop Robert Finn acknowledged here Tuesday he will need time to get up to speed with the issues of his new diocese, one bereft with divisiveness amid the fallout of a clergy sexual abuse scandal. Still, he recognized unresolved matters will require additional attention before focus can turn to what lies ahead.

“I believe that the diocese still has a great need for some healing,” said Bishop James V. Johnston at an introductory press conference held at the diocesan Catholic Center in downtown Kansas City.

“But I also believe that the one that truly heals is Jesus. And so I see my role as the bishop as sort of being a physician’s assistant, to be a person that facilitates some of that healing and actually also bringing the church together, providing some clarity so that we can really put our focus and our energy, our passion on what we’re called to be as church,” he said.

The Vatican’s announcement of Johnston’s move to Missouri’s northwestern corner from its southern Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese came nearly five months after a similar Vatican bulletin brought word that Finn, 62, would step down as its leader. Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph Naumann who in the interim has served as apostolic administrator of his neighboring diocese, said that people have continually asked him, particularly in recent weeks, when a new bishop would arrive.

“[To them] it seemed like a long time. Actually, this announcement is kind of lightning speed within the church. It shows the solicitude that Pope Francis has for this local church,” the archbishop said in introducing Johnston.

Naumann will remain administrator until Johnston’s installation as bishop on Nov. 4 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

In his prepared remarks, Johnston, 55, said he was at first surprised upon learning from the apostolic nuncio that Pope Francis had appointed him the seventh bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, but ultimately “humbled and honored.”

“I pledge to serve you with generosity, kindness, and charity. … Every one of us has an important place and mission within the church, which comes through our baptism.  I am eager to join all of you in putting our focus and passion on loving Jesus, serving Jesus, and sharing Jesus,” he said.

The press conference left Greg Vranicar, director of planned giving for the diocese, optimistic that Johnston could “heal the wounds” of the diocese for both its priests and its people, particularly those who have left.

“We’ve unfortunately suffered grave losses because people have left, and I think now this is an opportunity for us to get back and start over. Start anew,” said Vranicar, who has worked for the diocese since 2002.

Along with thanking God, Naumann, and St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, Johnston thanked the people of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

“You have recently been through uncertain and often difficult days. I am grateful to you for your strong faith and commitment, for your love for the Lord and His Church, your Church,” he said.

A diocese already divided over initiatives instituted by Finn reached its head in May 2011 when now-former priest Shawn Ratigan was arrested on child pornography charges. In September 2012, Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse related to Ratigan, who a year later was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

As the Ratigan case unfolded, Johnston served on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Child and Youth Protection (2011-2014). He told the media at the press conference that he did not recall the committee deliberately addressing the Finn case, though it did come up.

“It was not under our purview to make any decisions, but we were acutely aware of the public nature of what was going on here, and we were very concerned about it,” he said.

Johnston added that the 2002 resignation of Knoxville, Tenn., Bishop Anthony O’Connell -- following his admission that he molested teenaged seminarians decades earlier as rector of the Hannibal, Mo., high school seminary -- “hits very close to home,” and shaped his outlook on the abuse issue. Johnston was among the first priests O’Connell ordained for the Knoxville diocese, which formed in 1988.

“Finding out about his past has caused me to realize the importance of some of the things, a lot of the things, that the church is doing now in terms of prevention. But I also am very much aware up-close of how much pain the actions of priests and bishops have caused many people, individually, and the importance of taking seriously the need for healing and for calling people to responsibility.”

The bishop added he was “very disappointed” hearing O’Connell admit his abuse, “but there is no excuse for it. If anyone commits sexual abuse toward minors, it is inexcusable. It’s a crime and it’s a serious sin.”

In a statement David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that in appointing Johnston, “Pope Francis has made another poor choice.”

Clohessy said that Johnston ignored a recent request to reach out to possible victims of three religious order priests, shown as credibly accused in part of a Minnesota settlement, who worked in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese. He also said Johnston did not reply to a 2011 letter sent him in 2011 requesting similar action regarding Msgr. Thomas O’Brien, whose name was included in a dozen lawsuits among the 30 the Kansas City diocese settled last October.

Fr. Charles Rowe, Kansas City vicar general, told NCR that Johnston’s time on the child protection committee was one of aspects that pleased him with the appointment, along with his proximity to Kansas City and his experience in running a diocese.

“As we all know, our shortcomings, our lapses [on the abuse issue] have caused a lot of people, especially vulnerable people, a lot of pain,” Rowe said. “And having a man who is in the know about the magnitude of the problem and also about the resources to address the problem is a real, real plus.”

Rowe believed the new bishop’s experience on the abuse issue would bring, as well as reinforce, credibility to the diocese as it continues to make strides both in abuse prevention and regaining trust.

In recent weeks, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese has hosted two healing services for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the most recent on Sept. 9 at St. Elizabeth Parish in Kansas City. A first for the diocese, the services are part of its preparation for the Year of Mercy that Francis has declared, set to begin Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Johnston said he intends to visit parishes shortly after his installation, not only to celebrate Confirmation but to meet their parishioners. Last August, he embarked on a 17-day, 2,300 mile journey across the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese to visit each parish in the mission diocese. Ordained in the mission diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., he said the makeup of a mission diocese pushes the bishop out of the office and into the community.

“People live so far away they can’t come to you, so it’s up to the bishop to go to them. And so that’s sort of what I’m used to, and I enjoy it,” Johnston said.

He speculated his experience in mission dioceses may have played a role in his appointment, in that they require people to rely on and help each other.

“I think the church is a family and we have to assist one another, but in order for that to happen, you do have to have trust. And so, that’s what I would work on immediately, is to get to know people so they can get to know me so that I can be a good shepherd for people here,” Johnston said.

The former electrical engineer-turned-priest emphasized his missionary background in his opening statement, saying a challenge of the Gospel and key theme of Pope Francis’ papacy “is to not be an inward-looking church.”

“Our energy and identity is to be in mission mode: to be mindful of the poor, the lost, those hungering and thirsting physically and spiritually, of those needing healing, including people who have been harmed by those within the church,” Johnston said.  

“I am eager to join all of you in this mission that Jesus has entrusted to us.”

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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