FARGO — Catholic dioceses in North Dakota released on Thursday, Jan. 2, lists of clergy and religious members who have been accused of sexually abusing children, and prosecutors are investigating to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
The Dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck issued the lists, which include only allegations that church officials believe are credible.
The release of Fargo’s list comes after the diocese reviewed its files dating back to 1950. The list names 31 alleged offenders: priests and deacons, as well as non-ordained religious figures.
“It is my hope that this release of names will open the way to a purification of our Church, especially in our own diocese,” Bishop John Folda said in a statement. “We all know the experience of grace that comes with the confession of sins, and I pray that our diocese will experience a similar outpouring of grace through acknowledgement of these sinful acts by those in positions of authority.”
The Forum has published the Fargo Diocese's two-page list below:
The Dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck didn’t disclose any details about the allegations, including when and where they happened, how many victims were abused and which parishes the accused served in. Fargo Diocese spokesman Paul Braun declined to provide these details or comment on why the diocese decided not to disclose such information.
The Bismarck Diocese, which released a list of 22 names, also declined to provide additional information about its list.
Victim advocates and those who have worked to expose sexual abuse in the Catholic Church criticized the absence of detail in the lists. Zachary Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he expected at least a list that showed where each priest worked.
“It’s the barest of bare minimum,” he said. “How are people supposed to know if one of these men were in their community?"
Both dioceses took months to review their files, and this is the first time either has released a list of clergy who church officials believe have faced "substantiated" allegations of sexually abusing children.
"A substantiated allegation is one for which sufficient corroborating evidence establishes reasonable grounds to believe that the alleged abuse in fact occurred," the diocese said in a statement. "Substantiated is not equivalent to conviction in a court of law."
On Thursday, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said his office had been working with state’s attorneys from Cass and Burleigh counties for the past several weeks to thoroughly investigate the allegations.
“As the BCI investigation continues, if it leads to other offenders not already identified by the Dioceses, we will ensure, wherever possible, that all offenders are held accountable for their crimes to the fullest extent possible under the law,” Stenehjem said in a statement.
No details about allegations or where clergy worked
Over the years, many dioceses around the country have released similar lists. The Forum has previously pressed the Fargo Diocese on if and when it would release its list.
When issuing such lists, most dioceses release work histories of the accused, said Terry McKiernan, founder of Bishop Accountability. His website tracks accused clergy members and gives details about the allegations.
Still, McKiernan gave the North Dakota dioceses credit for releasing lists, even if they are late to the game. Fargo and Bismarck are the 148th and 149th out of about 200 dioceses in the U.S. to release lists, he said.
“A list is better than no list,” he said. “The transparency is significant.”
The North Dakota lists do contain the names of the accused, the year they were ordained, when they died and whether they were removed from ministry or imprisoned. The Forum has confirmed at least three of the accused served time behind bars.
According to the Fargo list, three-fourths of the accused are dead, and about a dozen were removed from ministry.
The lists also say whether clergy were members of a North Dakota diocese or from an out-of-state diocese and served in the state for some time.
Braun said Fargo Bishop John Folda would not provide any interviews for this story. The bishop, however, released a public statement about the list and a four-minute video of him reading the statement. Diocese churches plan to read his statement or play the video at Masses on Sunday.
In the video, Folda asks forgiveness for “the shameful acts of those … who caused harm to young people and abused the trust placed in them.”
“Even one instance of abuse would be too many, and I know this list of clergy and religious (officials) is a cause of deep sadness to us all,” Folda said.
Fargo Diocese staff worked with a review board consisting of volunteer laypersons who are experts in psychology, social services, law enforcement and medicine to determine which names to disclose, the diocese said.
The North Dakota lists have new names, meaning the dioceses are treating the situation with more honesty, McKiernan said. Fargo's list includes at least 15 new names previously not known to the public.
“That’s important for survivors of abuse because many of them have been suffering in silence all of these years,” he said. “You realize that you are not the only one.”
A chart released by the diocese shows it substantiated almost 90 allegations of child sexual abuse, almost half of which happened in 1970. That would amount to almost three allegations per accused church official, if evenly distributed.
But it’s likely some have more allegations than others. The Rev. John Gerald Brendan Smyth, who spent time serving in North Dakota, likely abused more than 50 children in Ireland and the U.S., according to Bishop Accountability.
It’s unclear whether the allegations against clergy on the Fargo Diocese list occurred in North Dakota or elsewhere. For example, the Rev. James C. Jeffrey was named last year by the Brownsville Diocese in Texas for allegations he faced in the 1980s. Law enforcement determined in 1987 the accusations were not valid, so Jeffrey, a Fargo Diocese priest, returned to North Dakota to serve as a priest until 1999, when he retired.
“The Diocese of Fargo has received no other accusations of childhood sexual abuse or sexual misconduct of any type against Father Jeffrey for the period from his 1959 ordination through his death on May 28, 2017,” Braun told The Forum in June.
Abusers of adults not included
The Fargo list does not include clergy members under investigation or those accused of abusing only adults.
The diocese is investigating whether allegations against priests Jack Herron and Wenceslaus Katanga are credible. The Forum reported last year that the church was conducting an internal investigation into Herron after a woman came forward with allegations he sexually abused her as an underage teen in the 1970s.
Prosecutors in Cass and McHenry counties have declined to pursue charges against Katanga, who was accused of sexually abusing a child in Fargo during the late 2000s.
Braun confirmed both men were still under internal investigation. "The list will be updated if any other clergy or religious (officials) have substantiated claims after an investigation," Braun said.
Another priest not included in Fargo's list was the Rev. Michael Wight. Last year, Kateri Marion of Belcourt, N.D., accused the priest of sexually abusing her when she was 30 years old.
Marion’s attorney, Michael Bryant, said the list is a start, but questioned the absence of priests who abused vulnerable adults. Bryant accused the church of protecting clergy over victims.
“There is a whole section about staying with our brothers,” he said. “That’s the problem is (diocese administrators) don’t protect the survivors from the beginning.”
He called on the state to lengthen the time allowed for victims to pursue criminal or civil cases against child sex abusers and for the church to release files on those accused.
Folda said in his statement his diocese takes seriously victims' allegations of clergy abuse.
Reporting sexual abuse
There are several numbers that can be used to report sexual abuse by clergy. If a person is in immediate danger, they should call 911. Residents also should call local law enforcement to report sexual abuse.
Here's a list of phone numbers to call for help or to file claims of abuse:
North Dakota Child Protection Program — 800-472-2622
North Dakota Attorney General's Office — 800-472-2185
Fargo Diocese — 701-356-7945 or 701-356-7965
Bismarck Diocese — 877-405-7435 or 701-223-1347