Lincoln bishop makes staffing changes, announces misconduct hotline

August 31, 2018

Bishop James Conley

The Lincoln Diocese shook up its head office and is setting up an anonymous hotline as it continues to deal with allegations of sexual abuse and clergy misconduct.

The diocese announced on its website that vicar general Monsignor Timothy Thorburn — Bishop James Conley’s No. 2 — was removed from that position after nearly 20 years. Conley replaced him with Monsignor Mark Huber, who had been serving as judicial vicar. That role will now be filled by the Rev. Steven Snitily.

A spokesman Wednesday wouldn’t make a direct connection between the changes in the chancery and Conley’s response to recent allegations.

“He had been thinking about some of these changes for some time and believes this is the right thing to do,” the Rev. Nicholas Kipper said Wednesday. “He really wanted a fresh look at how he might guide the diocese of Lincoln in a better way.”

But a Lincoln native who recently reported abuse from the 1990s to the diocese said Conley’s changes weren’t enough. Catholics he’s spoken to were hoping Conley would surround himself with outsiders who didn’t have deep ties to the diocese.

“There were a lot of people who were hoping Bishop Conley would take proactive action in assigning new people within the chancery, and his most recent action shows that all he’s done is move people around within,” said Stan Schulte, 37. “That’s very questionable to me and others.”

The staffing changes were included in the diocese’s announcement about the creation of a hotline and website to help people file reports of misconduct. The diocese hired the Oregon-based NAVEX Global to build and monitor the hotline.

The line will allow people to anonymously report a variety of complaints — including sexual misconduct, boundary violations, suspicious behavior and financial impropriety. The company will review the complaints and forward them to diocese officials.

In the statement, Conley stressed reports of sexual abuse should be reported to law enforcement, or to the Nebraska Child Abuse Hotline.

“This hotline is not a substitute or alternative to calling law enforcement; it is intended to offer the maximum alternatives to make sure any wrong in the Church is uncovered and reported,” he said.

The diocese has spent much of the month addressing reports of abuse and misconduct. It began when a pair of former seminarians alleged the late Monsignor Leonard Kalin had fostered an alcohol-fueled and sexualized atmosphere at the Newman Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus in the late 1990s, and tried to force himself on students.

Then an American Conservative writer told Schulte’s story — the Pius X grad said he was a young teenager in the 1990s when his uncle, Rev. James Benton, tried to assault him at a rectory sleepover in Seward.

Benton was sent to a home for retired priests and won’t return to a ministerial assignment. He was also ordered not to be alone with minors, sleep in a private home without permission or post photos of children on Facebook.

Conley removed the Rev. Charles Townsend from St. Peter’s after learning the priest was engaged in a non-sexual but inappropriate relationship with a 19-year-old altar boy. He removed the Rev. Patrick Barvick, pastor at St. Mary’s in Davey and a teacher at Bishop Neumann High School in Wahoo, saying he’d previously warned the priest to not be alone with females.

He also accepted the resignation of the Rev. Steven Thomlison, a Fillmore County priest, for an undisclosed incident that occurred when he was in the Nebraska Army National Guard.

Kipper, the diocese spokesman, declined to comment further on those cases or say if the diocese has fielded additional reports of abuse. But he did say no other priests had been placed on administrative leave.

“We just continue to really look at how we can prepare better in the future for any kind of allegations as they come forward,” he said.

Thorburn, the outgoing vicar general, was appointed judge of the diocese tribunal, co-vicar for religious and will continue to serve as chaplain for the Carmelite Sisters.

Conley also announced the appointment of the Rev. Christopher Goodwin to vicar for clergy, where he will address physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of priests, and as a liaison between them and the bishop.

He replaces the Rev. Randall Langhorst, who is serving as administrator of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Wilber and St. Joseph Parish in Tobias.

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