Robert Bentham had a burning question Tuesday evening for Bishop Gerald Vincke and Capuchin Fr. Christopher Popravak at St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church.
A Victoria native, Bentham was at the public listening session called by Vincke and Popravak to field questions about child sexual abuse by clergy once assigned to Hays, many of them now dead.
More than 150 people attended, with Bentham midway through the two-hour session asking who in the church and elsewhere covered up the abuse.
“Who was it? Who said that was the best plan? This happened a multitude of times,” Bentham said loudly from the pew where he sat. “Who was it that said this is okay? Someone has to answer for that and it’s not a dead man… You guys are acting like this was so long ago in the past. It’s not.”
Bentham, at one time a student at the Capuchin-run Thomas More Prep High School in Hays, told Vincke and Popravak that one of his relatives was a victim of abuse by a seminarian at St. Francis Seminary in Victoria who later became a priest.
“Seriously, I don’t know what to tell you about that,” said Vincke, who heads the Salina Diocese, in response. The diocese on Friday released its list of 14 diocesan priests against which there are substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse.
As for the Capuchins, it’s not out of the question that there could be an investigation into who might have known about any child sexual abuse and covered it up, said Fr. Joseph Elder, Denver, a spokesman at St. Nick’s for the Denver Capuchins, speaking after the session.
That decision, Elder said, will be that of the next leader of the Capuchin Franciscan Province, based in Denver, which includes the Capuchins in Ellis County.
The Province on Thursday released its list of 13 friars with credible allegations of sexual abuse. At least seven were known to have taught or worked at Thomas More Prep at one time.
None of the 13 are in active ministry. Two are deceased and five have left the order, according to the Capuchins.
The current leader, Popravak, has served two three-year terms as province leader, but his term is expiring. A new province leader will be elected by the order and take office later this month, Elder said.
Popravak ordered the independent audit that produced the list of Capuchin abusers. Credible claims, he said, are those where it was determined abuse was more likely to have happened.
“We’re the only Capuchin entity that has done an outside investigation,” said Elder in comments after the session. He noted there are six Capuchin provinces in the United States, all of them independent of one another.
“For us this is the first step,” he said. “We’re following what other orders are doing, trying to follow best practices and trying to be transparent. We want to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s hard to know what the right thing is.”
At this point there hasn’t been a decision to investigate who might have known about abuse and who actively covered up.
“That’s going to be up to the next provincial,” Elder said. “It’s going to be up to that leadership and his council.”
It’s possible the Capuchins in Denver could release additional names if new allegations of abuse are reported to the order, he said.
Vincke both opened and closed Tuesday’s session with prayer, and apologized several times during the session for abuse perpetrated by the clergy. Covering up the abuse and moving priests from one parish to another was the mindset years ago, he said.
“There’s no question about it, we messed up, and that’s all there is to it,” said Vincke, who has led the diocese since August. “We messed up.”
Many in the audience took the opportunity to ask questions as well as state their sadness, anger, disappointment and feelings of betrayal, but also their support for church clergy. Many urged prayer, fasting and sacrifice to fight evil.
Some said the abusers should be present.
“I’m related to Julian Haas,” said one man in the audience, who said the Capuchin, who was assigned to TMP, was his first cousin and officiated his wedding years ago.
“Why aren’t they here?” the man asked. “Why aren’t they jailed?”
Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees, who attended as both a Catholic and to answer questions, said the statute of limitations must be considered on a case-by-case basis for every allegation. But in the cases disclosed last week, it’s too late to prosecute.
“Most of these allegations have been made well after the statute of limitations had run out,” Drees said. “That doesn’t mean tomorrow there won’t be an accusation and someone identified that can be prosecuted.”
Bishop Vincke assured the audience that any abuse of power now, whether against a child or an adult, will be investigated. Unlike in the past, he said, clergy are immediately removed from ministry while an allegation is investigated.
Some in the audience asked why the abusers who are still alive weren’t present to apologize.
Vincke said the diocese has tried to contact the priests, but gets no response.
As for the Capuchins, they are not allowed out of the facilities where they are being supervised.
“Sad to say, that in a couple cases, they have not accepted responsibility for what they have done,” said Popravak. “There are a couple in denial, others are contrite.”
One man in the audience identified himself as someone who previously worked in a medium security correctional facility that housed many sexual predators. He said people shouldn’t expect an apology.
“Child molesters are not going to apologize. Many said the child came on to them, they blamed it on the child,” he said. Anyone waiting on an apology, “it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Drees said that from July 2012 to March 4, 2019, the Capuchins have notified him of seven allegations of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by more than one abuser, and all of them too old to prosecute.
“I suspect there will be more coming forward,” Drees said.
Popravak told the audience that additional clergy, where the cases haven’t been substantiated by the Capuchin province’s outside auditor, are named on the web site www.bishop-accountability.com.
One woman said the situation has hurt everyone.
“We’re all wounded,” she said, noting “Father John Walsh was a good man and I feel badly his name was on the list … I don’t see him as the kind of man who could have done something like this.”
Vincke said he’s received a lot of phone calls about Walsh.
“This priest that people absolutely loved was on the list, and it broke their hearts,” Vincke said. “I’m sorry he’s on the list. I know it hurts.”
One man spoke up to say that his son was abused by Fr. Robert Reif.
Another man, Alfred Reif, Osborne, said that Reif was his brother three years older and abused him for more than two years starting when the younger Reif was 8 years old.
“It’s a hell of a burden to carry,” Reif said, speaking afterward to The Hays Daily News and OKing his identification. He told his mother and family members about the abuse, but no one believed him, and still don’t, he said.
When he returned from serving in Vietnam decades ago, Alfred Reif sent a letter to Salina Diocese Bishop Cyril Vogel, he said, to alert the diocese before ordaining Robert Reif, but he was ignored.
“I’ve been ostracized by my family for speaking out,” Alfred Reif said. “I don’t get invited to anything.”
Reif was approached after the meeting by Senior Special Agent Mark Kendrick, Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Kendrick declined to say why he was attending the session, but Reif said Kendrick has asked to speak with him. Other law enforcement also attending included City of Hays Chief of Police Don Scheibler, who said he was attending as a member of the community, and Ellis County Undersheriff Scott Braun.