Environmental racism was a term coined to describe historical tendencies in the U.S. to store toxic waste on Native American reservations or build pollution-spewing incinerators in Latino or African-American neighborhoods.
An analogous term may now be required for the Catholic Church’s systematic dumping of sexually abusive priests into minority communities: Racist diocesan exile? Clergy abuse racism?
That’s because, as more information has been extracted through recent lawsuits against dioceses and investigations of abusive priests, it has become clear that the church often banished sex offenders to minority parishes as a way of burying them.
“It is amazing the number of priests whose assignment histories show them lasting a year or so at parish after parish until they get to an under-resourced, minority area, where, miraculously, they stay for a decade or more,” wrote Josh Peck, an attorney with Jeffrey Anderson & Associates, which has represented thousands of abuse victims.
Peck further explained in an email to me that the church knew there was less chance of exposure, not only because minority children assumed they wouldn’t be believed or would be labeled troublemakers, but also because parents felt powerless, and they feared losing standing or even benefits from their church affiliation — or even that their children might be taken from them.
“Our experience has shown us that minority communities, including Latino, African American, and Native American, have historically been very reluctant to come forward and report this type of sexual abuse,” Peck wrote.
He cited the case of Fr. Vincent Fitzgerald of the Oblates Missionaries, assigned to an Indian reservation in Minnesota, where he not only sexually abused Native children but was said to laugh when a victim threatened to expose him, telling the child that nobody would believe a “dirty little Indian,” as Peck wrote.
Before then, Fitzgerald had been transferred at least seven times between 1950 and 1968, after which he finally landed at the parish on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, where he settled in for 15 years, persisting in his criminal behavior.
As recently as Oct. 2, a lawsuit was filed by a Navajo man against the Dioceses of Phoenix, Arizona, and Lafayette, Indiana, accusing Fr. James Grear of sexually abusing him when Grear was the principal of Chinle High School where the victim was a student. Grear had been removed from Indiana and sent to the school on the Navajo Reservation after a parent reported he was abusing children at the Brebeuf Prep School in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1975.
“Too often the Catholic Church uses Native American communities to hide pedophile priests,” Phoenix attorney Robert Pastor, who represents the Navajo man, referred to as “John T.J. Doe,” said, according to an Oct. 1 Associated Press report. “In this case the Diocese of Phoenix and the Diocese of Lafayette worked together to assign Father Grear to Native communities and hide his previous sexual abuse of children. In doing so, they knowingly endangered our local children, including John T.J. Doe.”
Closer to Duluth, Fr. Kenneth Gansmann, a Franciscan priest and pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church in New Prague, Minnesota, sexually abused me when I was 6 years old. He used gifts and the prestige of clergy to insinuate himself into my parents’ lives, dining, partying, and traveling with them.
It was the 1950s, and my parents never suspected Gansmann was a “double agent,” posing as a jolly, down-to-earth monk but savagely skilled in subterfuge from experience in having abused other children.
Inevitably, he was not able to keep a lid on his assaults of multiple children, and his superiors became aware. But as with countless cases of predatory priests, the Archdiocese of St. Paul kept it to themselves. They did not report Gansmann to the police, did not advise the parish, and did not notify parents of other likely victims.
Instead, they removed Gansmann from St. John’s, after which he was sent to St Peter’s Church in Chicago’s Loop, a friary for dozens of Franciscan priests, where he said Mass every day at the downtown church and heard confessions for whichever random tourists or Chicagoans might stop by. Less than two years later, Gansmann assumed the pastor’s position at an African-American parish in Nashville.
In other words, though he had been considered unfit to continue at St. John’s in Minnesota, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Franciscan Province in St. Louis allowed his appointment as pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, a position he would hold for 14 years.
From correspondence with Fransciscan Province administrators, I learned that Gansmann apparently continued abusing children with impunity at the minority parish in Nashville until his death in 1974.
At least two parishioners from St. Vincent’s came forward after Gansmann died, alleging sexual abuse. But that information was not reported to police or the Department of Children and Family Services, and it remains in the Franciscans’ files.
Cases like Gansmann’s, and examples cited by Peck, are the tip of the iceberg of a massive campaign, decades in the making, of hiding known sex abusers, manifesting the callousness, hypocrisy, and racism of church administrators in their unceasing attempts to cover up crimes by their priests against children.
David McGrath is a freelance columnist, frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, and author of “South Siders.”