By Kendrick Calfee and Judy Thomas
After a priest accused of child molestation became the new pastor at a Lenexa church, and a man who faced a child sex abuse lawsuit was hired by a Roeland Park Catholic school, abuse victims are calling for their removal and an explanation from church leaders.
Two members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) gathered Thursday outside The Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Kansas City, Kansas, demanding the men to be removed from their roles and for the leader of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas to publicly address concerns about them.
The protest followed a letter Thursday to Archbishop Joseph Naumann, asking for the church leader to hold a public meeting with the group, worried parents and parishioners.
In its letter to the archbishop, SNAP said a meeting of this nature could inspire similar meetings elsewhere which could lead to greater awareness of child sex crimes and hopefully even prevent them from happening.
“It would, we believe, deepen the respect that many of your flock have in you, and help create such respect where it is lacking,” the letter says.
The letter from SNAP and calls to action from parishioners came after Naumann reinstated the Rev. John Pilcher to Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa. Pilcher had previously been accused of sexually abusing a boy in a Topeka parish. But the Shawnee County District Attorney did not file charges against him.
Parishioners were also concerned over Naumann’s decision to approve Bishop Miege High School’s hiring of Phil Baniewicz as its president. He was a defendant along with two Catholic priests in a 2005 sexual abuse lawsuit in Arizona that the Archdiocese of Phoenix settled for $100,000.
“(A meeting) would give you a chance to more thoroughly explain why you believe your actions around alleged child molesters are not reckless and callous,” the SNAP letter says.
“And it would give you an opportunity to shed much-needed light on the controversial and opaque process you follow when reports of sexual violence are made against your staff.” While the accusations against Pilcher and Baniewicz did not result in convictions for the alleged crimes, SNAP suggested in its letter to the archdiocese that having alleged abusers in roles close to children presents a risk.
“The big thing for us is, why take the risk,” said David Clohessy, the Missouri director of SNAP. “Why choose a man that’s been accused of and sued for abuse?” The organization is also criticizing the archdiocese for its silence after a former priest was arrested in Overland Park and convicted on child pornography charges. Allegations against Baniewicz ‘discussed openly’ during hiring Baniewicz, who was appointed last June as president of Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, was a defendant along with two Catholic priests in a 2005 sexual abuse lawsuit in Arizona. In the lawsuit, Baniewicz was accused of sexually abusing a teen in 1985. The other defendants were the Rev. Mark Lehman and Monsignor Dale Fushek. The three were associated with St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Mesa, Arizona, at the time.
Baniewicz and Fushek also were co-founders of Life Teen, a Catholic youth program that was used in hundreds of parishes worldwide. The suit alleged that Life Teen participant William Cesolini was abused by Baniewicz “on more than one occasion” at St. Timothy’s and by Lehman “on several occasions.” It also alleged that Fushek, the church pastor, failed to stop or prevent the abuse, provided alcohol to Cesolini and watched Lehman sexually abuse the teen. After the case was filed, the Life Teen board placed Baniewicz on administrative leave while it investigated. He was reinstated a few months later, but resigned in May 2006.
Prior to his appointment at Bishop Miege, Baniewicz served for nearly 14 years as president of Maur Hill-Mount Academy, a college preparatory boarding school in Atchison, Kansas. Before that, Baniewicz was vice president of college relations at Benedictine College in Atchison for more than 3 1⁄2 years. The Archdiocese of KCK said Bishop Miege and church officials knew about the 2005 Arizona lawsuit when Baniewicz was hired. Benedictine College and Maur Hill-Mount Academy also knew of the allegations, and in each hiring process, “the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of the hiring entities.” “The allegations were made known not only to Bishop Miege’s board, but were discussed openly by Mr. Baniewicz during the hiring process,” it said in an email response to The Star last year. The archdiocese said Baniewicz has emphatically denied any allegations of wrongdoing throughout. Lenexa parents share concerns over new priest Outside The Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle Thursday, Clohessy said at least six parents who attend Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa have said they are concerned about Pilcher leading the church.
In his remarks, Clohessy urged the archdiocese to outline the reasons why it is comfortable with Pilcher, who was reinstated in April 2022 after an August 2021 allegation against him. When Pilcher first greeted his new parishioners, he openly discussed the allegation and denied any wrongdoing. He also discussed his sabbatical in Rome before being assigned to Holy Trinity. Despite his efforts to be transparent, some in the congregation were upset that he would be leading the church. An outcry ensued from parents who are asking the same question Clohessy and SNAP are asking. Even though charges were not pursued in Pilcher’s case, SNAP said he should have been assigned a different role by the church.
“There are many, many jobs where you could put a priest (who has been accused),” Clohessy said Thursday. “Why take the risk of putting him into a parish (with a school)?” Part of the answer, Clohessy suggested Thursday, could be an ongoing shortage of Catholic priests. The need for priests, he said, increases the incentives for bishops to reassign priests accused of abuse. Some parents told The Star earlier this month that they felt the decision to assign Pilcher to Holy Trinity was dividing the parish and that Archbishop Naumann didn’t care what they thought.
At that time, he said he did care, but had to stand up for truth, the rights of accused priests and the idea that, “we’re all innocent until proven guilty.”
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