A Catholic priest once summoned a 15-year-old boy to his summer camp cabin for Confession. The boy went.
What allegedly happened in that cabin was not sacramental, but a betrayal on two levels. First came the betrayal of trust. The priest asked the boy to disrobe, which he did.
The second betrayal was ruining one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most important sacraments. Since that night in 1988, the boy, who is now a 46-year-old man, hasn’t been back to Confession.
Confession, also called Penance and Reconciliation, is a way that the church delivers forgiveness from a merciful God. The priest is a stand-in for God. His absolution is the formal sign of official forgiveness.
That’s one reason why this priest’s alleged use of Confession as an opportunity to get the boy to expose himself — a scenario that his accusers say was repeated with others — stands out.
What allegedly happened in that summer cabin in 1988 between adult and child, between priest and penitent, speaks to the gut-punch Catholics are feeling as the international clergy abuse crisis unfolds in Omaha.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has issued hundreds of subpoenas for sexual abuse records from Catholic parishes, schools and other institutions across Nebraska. Priests are being publicly named.
“This is a troubled time for our church, and rightfully so,” said the man, a 1991 graduate of Creighton Prep. He is among a growing list of accusers of former Prep teacher and Jesuit Daniel Kenney. He remains a Catholic and is sending his children to Catholic schools.
“I like to think that … getting the information out there is helpful to help hold the predators accountable,” he said. “Only then can we move forward as a church.”
Last month, The World-Herald reported on Kenney and his alleged history of abuse at the school where he worked from 1965 to 1989. That story counted 12 alleged victims: eight that the Jesuit order had on record and four more who had contacted the newspaper.
When contacted last month, Kenney appeared to deny the accusations. One led to his dismissal from Prep in 1989, but there were no criminal charges. He has not responded to subsequent interview requests. Top Jesuit officials, the Rev. Brian Paulson, Provincial of the Midwest Jesuits in Chicago, and the Rev. Tom Neitzke, Prep president, have issued apologies and urged victims to come forward.
“On behalf of the Creighton Prep community, I would like to express my deepest apologies, regret and sorrow for the harm caused to any student while at Prep,” Neitzke said in a statement.
Since then, seven more men have come forward to the newspaper, along with one of the alleged victims in the Jesuits’ original list. Most had never shared their stories with Prep or the Jesuit order. There is no evidence of physical abuse, though alleged victims say that Kenney asked them to expose themselves to him.
Sexual abuse most commonly occurs in families, and abusers also have been coaches and teachers and doctors. Abusers take advantage of their proximity to victims, and it’s alleged that Kenney was able to do that at Prep. He could live at the school as other Jesuits have done and continue to do. He could walk the hallways and pull students out of class, which he often did, according to the men who spoke to the newspaper.
And he could, as a Catholic priest in a Catholic school, tell a boy that it was time for his Confession — giving the priest an opportunity to be alone with the boy in a setting steeped in confidentiality.
Back then, sexual abuse — by a priest, no less — was not on the public radar. Plus, it was a homophobic era, which virtually guaranteed the victim’s silence. A teenage boy in the 1980s would be loath to tell anyone that a man had hit on him because it might associate him with being gay. Plus, who would believe it? Kenney was a beloved priest with a rock-solid reputation among adults.
Of the 12 Prep men interviewed by The World-Herald, five said they were propositioned by Kenney in Confession. And nearly all have left the church. Of the 12, two say they remain practicing Catholics.
The alleged victims are not the only ones who feel betrayed. Other priests, like the Rev. Damien Zuerlein, are offended by the abuse of a sacrament.
“It’s so horrible because (Confession) has such healing potential. Then to do just the opposite in that sacrament is so sad and disturbing,” said Zuerlein, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. “People come in very fragile. They’re coming in to have a ritual, sacramental encounter with God. They’re looking, I think, (to hear) the voice of Jesus back to them, saying, ‘You’re loved and forgiven.’ That’s what should happen in that sacrament. Not anything else.”
Many are familiar with the boxy Catholic confessionals inside churches where a priest sits on one side of the screen and the person seeking forgiveness sits on the other.
But as the sacrament has evolved, the faithful can take part in Confession anywhere.
At Prep in the 1980s, a priest holding Confession in a spare meeting room at school or in his cabin at a youth camp would not seem that unusual.
So “Peter” thought nothing of following Kenney out of his study hall classroom at Prep in 1984 to a private meeting room near the old switchboard for what Kenney called a “Confession session.”
“Peter” is the confirmation name of a 50-year-old Prep graduate living outside of Omaha who, like the others who told their stories to the newspaper, does not want his full name public.
Only a few, Peter included, reported their experiences with Kenney to Jesuit officials. The Midwest Jesuits and the Archdiocese of Omaha are offering counseling to victims and are collecting reports.
Peter contacted the Jesuits in Chicago. He got a form letter, which he filled out and sent in. But that process has felt “cold,” and he wants a direct response from Prep. He said he has come forward with his story because it’s a relief to finally tell it.
The story as he remembers it is this: Pulled out of study hall, Peter started his Confession with Kenney with the traditional opener: “Bless me father, for I have sinned …”
The sacrament went along as expected, he alleges, until Kenney asked about masturbation. Did he do it? How often? Where? And what did his penis look like?
To his shock, Peter realized that the priest was aroused. The Confession ended shortly after that, with Peter exiting the room stunned.
The following day, Peter said the dean of discipline wanted to know why he’d skipped study hall. When Peter protested he hadn’t cut class but had been summoned for Confession with Kenney, the dean — a Jesuit priest, like Kenney — said something that haunts him: Don’t you know better than to hang out with a guy like that?
Catholic officials have said prior to church reforms in 2002, situations involving potential or probable abuse were not handled correctly and things are much different now.
Zuerlein said he’s seeing a shift among fellow priests: Victims are being put first, before institutions. He said the church still needs to change — especially among the hierarchy. He said it’s important for the church to come clean on its past.
“Shining the light is the only way to really purify it,” Zuerlein said. “If it’s a secret, we can’t get well. Our secrets make us sick.”
Most of the new victims who have come forward to the newspaper allege Kenney confronted them at school, though two have described off-campus experiences. One occurred outside a boy’s west Omaha home after Kenney drove him home. The other happened at a cabin at Camp Buford.
Kenney started Camp Buford on donated land near the Grand Tetons of western Wyoming. Generations of Omahans have fond memories of going there. Even the 15-year-old boy who exposed himself to Kenney there in 1988 said he otherwise loved his experiences at camp and at Prep.
He said he has tried not to let what happened that night affect him — though he’s angry about it.
The 1991 Prep graduate gives the following account: One summer night after everyone at Camp Buford had eaten dinner, Kenney told him that he wanted the boy to come to his cabin later “to talk about a few things.”
The request struck the boy as odd. But Kenney had been a guest in his family’s Omaha home and the boy “trusted him completely.”
In Kenney’s cabin, the boy sat on Kenney’s bed. Kenney sat on a chair and said the boy needed a Confession. It started normally until Kenney peppered him with questions about masturbation and penis size.(tncms-inline)9710fe1f-3b93-45ca-90f4-18f2a231a352(/tncms-inline)
“Somehow he convinced me to drop my pants and look at myself in the mirror in the next room,” the man recounted. “He remained sitting and watched and validated verbally that I was adequately equipped.”
The man says Kenney didn’t touch him but approached him the next day to thank him for his “honesty” and to ask him to “keep the conversation from the night before to myself.”
In Confession, it’s the priest who is not to tell what he has heard. But in this case, it was the boy who was told to keep silent. Which he did. He didn’t tell best friends, family members or even his wife.
He, like the other alleged victims, believe that reporting their stories can bring about some good, the way Confession is supposed to. In the telling can come healing. Accountability. And maybe even peace.
“It helps to be heard,” Peter said. “It helps with the forgiveness process.”