James V. Johnston’s tenure as the seventh bishop of the diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph, Missouri, may have begun September 15 of 2015, the day Pope Francis announced his appointment.
But his actual episcopacy probably did not start until eight months later, on a June evening in 2016. That’s when he found himself collapsed face down on a cathedral floor, surrounded by diocesan clergy, priests and deacons and worshippers, flanked by the diocesan vicar general and chancellor, and watched by many area survivors of clergy sex abuse who had been personally invited.
He remained on the floor as some of the actual testimony of the abuse victims was read aloud in the cathedral, woven into a tongue-lashing Service of Lament. It was the cumulation of several healing services held over ten months while the diocese was without a bishop. The diocesan administrator during the vacancy, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, next door in Kansas City, Kansas, conducted two of them; Johnston arrived in the diocese in time to preside over the final two. Johnston’s formal installation, only a week earlier, coincided with this last recitation of lament.
His was an act of personal self-abnegation—my own description; I don’t have a better one—a penitential apology for sex crimes against children on behalf of the diocese he inherited.
I learned of this in conversation with Bishop Johnston, two weeks ago, on September 20th. We had met briefly twice before; since neither of us came away from those encounters with a bad taste, I asked and he agreed to my request for an interview for Catholic World Report. I asked diocesan press spokesman, Jack Smith, a friend who is also editor of the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Key, to sit in for the record.
For Johnston, the service “was humbling; it felt like Good Friday.” He spoke in a modest, chastened tone of voice. Observed a priest I know, describing the service, “The only thing missing was a cowled monk laying on a flagellum. It was impressive and sobering,” he said.
I wanted to talk with a boots-on-the-ground bishop, someone not burdened with a red hat or unnecessarily embroiled with the inner churning of the USCCB. A bishop, I was thinking, who fits the Missouri motto: The Show Me State, which is less a motto than an in-your-face demand; no talk, show me.
So, why not this for a first question, some Show Me bluntness: Did he ever hear of any sex-related rumors as a seminarian involving fellow seminarians, parish priests, bishops? The answer was unequivocal: No. Had he said “Yes” I don’t know what I would have asked next.
Johnston followed Bishop Robert Finn. In 2012, Finn pled guilty in a Missouri circuit court on a misdemeanor charge child endangerment for failing to report a priest in possession child pornography. The diocese was also criminally charged. When Finn pled guilty and was sentenced to two years probation, the charge against the diocese was dropped. It was part of a deal with the prosecutor, so suspicions run: the diocese walks if Finn pleads.
The priest, Shawn Ratigan, is now serving a 50-year sentence in a federal prison. Finn was made aware of the child pornography found on Ratigan’s computer; sent him off for evaluation, restricted him from contact with children, but did not require monitoring or reports from Ratigan. And Ratigan violated the restrictions. It was not until five months later following the discovery that a diocesan official, without instruction from Finn, gave a full report to police.
Bp. Finn’s handling of the Ratigan case was a blow to the diocese and—this isn’t saying it too strongly—put a pall over almost everything. Finn’s handling of the matter is charitably described as “bungling.” “If you have to ask is this child porn,” one priest remarked privately to me, “you should already know the answer.”
Bp. Finn spent his last twenty-nine months as bishop strengthening diocesan protocols and adding firmer safeguards. He removed the bishop’s office from the reporting process and beefed up the Independent Review Board, mandated for all dioceses by the USCCB. It had become moribund under Finn, if not essentially toothless. An independent child protection ombudsman was hired to oversee the reporting process. The Kansas City diocese may be the only diocese in the U.S. with an ombudsman who receives first reports and who in turn is expected to relay them directly to civil authorities, and only then to the bishop.
But the absence of trust is what ended Finn’s time in office; that was gone. Bp. Finn’s departure and Bp. Johnston’s arrival were greeted with paradoxical sighs of regret and hopeful expectation.
And then it was 2018, mid-summer. The Pennsylvania grand jury report was released including lurid details of clerical escapades with young boys and former cardinal Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was exposed as a molester who also suborned seminarians for sex. Johnston has already pledged to open records for any investigation by the Missouri attorney general or local authorities.
So, another Show Me question: Does Johnston get why the laity are reacting as they are, and why many are plain angry and distrustful of the hierarchy, expressing a sense of betrayal and anger?
“I certainly do understand it,” he responded. “There’s a frustration—after all the work we have put into child protection, it not only feels as if we’re back where we were, in some ways it feels even worse than [the] 2002 [Boston Globe news accounts]. To be put back in this spot again is extremely frustrating, and it does produce anger. As a bishop who loves the church, yes, I’m angry. Having lived through the last fifteen years and having seen some really good progress, yes, it angers me, as well.”
If he were Pope for a Day? “There are modifications to be made to provide mechanisms for [bishops’] accountably.”
And what does that mean? “We need new Church structures to address this problem: There is simply too much in the way of making a bishop accountable. How to we address a bishop who is failing, or not acting accountably? How do bishops themselves, and the laity, face that question? We have to address failure.”