New KC-St.Joe bishop knows grim realities of abuse scandal

Kansas City, Mo. — Bishop James V. Johnston, the newly named bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., comes to the job familiar with the grim realities of the sex abuse scandal, having served a bishop who resigned in 2002 after admitting that he abused teen age boys.

Johnston hails from Knoxville, Tenn., a diocese erected in 1988. Its first bishop was Anthony O’Connell, who served there from 1988 until 1998 when he was transferred to Palm Beach, Fla. It was in Palm Beach in 2002 that O’Connell revealed that he had molested teen-aged seminarians decades before when he served as rector of Hannibal, Mo., high school seminary.

O’Connell resigned in 2002 and was ordered to a life of private prayer in Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, S.C., where he died in 2012 at age 74.

Johnston was one of the first priests O’Connell ordained in Knoxville, and he served O’Connell as vicar of clergy and chancellor.

In 2004 advocates for victims of childhood sex abuse urged the Knoxville diocese to remove a life-size bronze bust of O’Connell from a prominent place in the Knoxville chancery and to remove a photo portrait of the former bishop from Knoxville Catholic High School. The displays weren’t removed.

Asked about the public display of image of the admitted abuser of minors, Johnston told NCR in 2004 that he found nothing inappropriate.

Johnston said that the bust appears with the decree from the Holy See establishing Knoxville as a diocese and is meant as a historical display. It has been in the hallway since about 1996 when a friend of O’Connell gave it to the bishop as a gift.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate [to display the bust] in a certain area to recall the roots of the local church -- whatever they are,” Johnston said. The bust simply acknowledges that O’Connell was the founding bishop of the diocese, he said. “The presence of it is not to make a statement.”

Johnston said at the time that he knew the local SNAP chapter had asked that the bust and other images of O’Connell be removed from church property, but said he did not know if that had been discussed and knew of no plans to remove the images.

Asked then if he thought the presence of the bust might create an unfriendly atmosphere for victims of clergy abuse or might be intimidating to someone who wants to report abuse, Johnston said: “It’s hard for me to speculate on that. It’s hard for me to say what would be a barrier to a person in that situation."

“It’s not the only thing that could be a barrier,” he said. “That is why the assistance coordinator is in another place to help.” The assistance coordinator, who handles abuse reports for the diocese, is a contracted lay professional, and her office is not in the chancery.

Johnston also said that a person could contact the diocese and report abuse without ever knowing the bust is there.

Johnston was then chancellor to Bishop Joseph Kurtz, who would in a couple of years be appointed archbishop of Louisville, Ky., and now serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He was named the sixth bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in 2008.

When O’Connell died in 2012, Johnston issued a statement. “I knew Bishop O’Connell for 10 years while he served as the first bishop of Knoxville," it said. "He brought many gifts to this time of service. After he departed, news emerged from his past of which I was unaware. I look at his life in light of both realities, and I pray now for his soul.”

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor.]

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