Child Sex Abuse Allegations Against Kansas Priest Confirmed

Father Hoppe
Born July 11, 1911 in St. Joseph, Father Sylvester James Hoppe was a priest within The Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph throughout his career. Hoppe was primarily stationed at parishes in the northland and around St. Joseph. He worked as a Chaplain with the Boy Scouts in St. Joseph and was heavily involved with the scout community throughout his time with the Church.

Excelsior Springs Standard

“A December notice from The Catholic Key, a newspaper published by the Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph, announced that sexual abuse allegations against Father Sylvester James Hoppe have been confirmed by the Diocese.

According to the Diocese, this allegation marks the seventh confirmed claim against Hoppe by the Roman Catholic Church, and two additional lawsuits claiming childhood sexual abuse against Hoppe were settled by the Diocese in 2008. The most recent claim dates to abuse that occurred from 1953-1956.

Hoppe was ordained in 1946 at the age of 35 and he retired in June 1991 after serving in numerous communities across the Kansas City—St. Joseph Diocese. Diocesan records note Hoppe was a priest at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Excelsior Springs from 1971-1982.

To date, all substantiated allegations against Hoppe date back to the 1950s, when he was Chaplain at St. Mary’s Orphanage and State Hospital in St. Joseph, Mo. From 1951-1958, Hoppe lived on campus at the orphanage, which housed boys girls and boys. Hoppe also worked closely with the Boy Scouts of America throughout his entire career with the Church.

The first of several allegations against Hoppe occurred in early 2002. In April 2002, Hoppe was confronted and asked not to say Mass. Hoppe denied the allegations. In May, he was suspended while the allegations were investigated, and in July, Bishop Raymond J. Boland restricted Hoppe from presenting himself as a priest or performing public ministry. Hoppe died in November 2002. He was 91.

During his tenure with the Church, Hoppe also served in the following parishes in the Diocese: St. Rose, Savannah, 1951; St. Patrick, Forest City, 1951; St. Benedict, Burlington Junction, 1959; St. Paul, Tarkio, 1961; St. Columban, Chillicothe, 1968 and Sacred Heart, Norborne, 1983. Hoppe also served as Chaplain for Daughters of Isabella, St. Joseph; Tarkio College, St. Joseph, and the St. Joseph Scouts. Hoppe was also a diocesan director of Catholic Boy Scouts before retiring in 1991.

The Roman Catholic Church, under fire

In January 2002, a special team of reporters from The Boston Globe broke a story about a cover up of sexual abuse allegations within the Archdiocese of Boston.

According to Globe Spotlight reporters, then Cardinal Bernard F. Law knew that Priest John K. Geoghan was a risk to parishioners within the archdiocese, yet continued to transfer him from one parish to another after child sexual abuse allegations came to light. The 2002 reporting series noted that over 130 people came forward with allegations against Geoghan since the mid-1990s.

Unfortunately, Geoghan wasn’t the only offender in the Archdiocese of Boston.

A 2015 film portrayed the story behind the scenes, detailing how the four-person team of Globe reporters, called Spotlight, uncovered the abuse scandal and subsequent cover up within the Church. Spotlight won Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Writing: Original Screenplay at the 2016 Academy Awards. More importantly, the publicity surrounding Spotlight and the scandal reminds us all that child sexual abuse awareness is crucial.

The Globe published nearly 600 follow-up stories in the year that followed the January 2002 breaking story. According to the credits at the end of Spotlight, 249 clergy were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese, with well over 1,000 survivors estimated in Boston.

Law resigned as archbishop in December 2002 amid the scandal, and according to the Vatican, was reassigned to a position in Italy as archpriest where he served until 2011.

A statement from the Vatican stated Law died in Rome Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, and received a cardinal’s funeral the following day at St. Peter’s Basilica. He was 86.

Righting wrongs, protecting children

After the cover-up in Boston was revealed in Jan. 2002, bishops from across the country convened at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas. It was at this summer assembly that the Church created the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The Charter’s mission statement is, “Promise to protect. Pledge to heal,” with the ultimate goal to prevent sexual abuse of children within the church and provide resources to victims, survivors and their families.

The Office of Child and Youth Protection encourages an open dialogue about child sexual abuse in order to protect children.

“As a Church, we want to do all we can to prevent child sexual abuse,” Diocese of Kansas City­—St. Joseph Safe Environment Program Coordinator Sherry Huffman said.

OCYP educates children and youth from pre-k to grade 8 of their right to a safe environment with the Circle of Grace program. The Called to Protect program teaches teens in high school about physical, emotional and behavioral boundaries and how to bring their concerns to a trusted parent or adult. The office also trains adults, including clergy, employees and volunteers, to know the warning signs of sexual abuse through Virtus: Protecting Gods Children training.

Many times, it’s simply a lack of awareness, and things may go unnoticed.

“If you see something, say something,” Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph Safe Environment Program Coordinator Sherry Huffman said. “We train adults to recognize the warning signs and to report a concern or suspicion of sexual abuse to provide a safe environment for children and youth.”

The OCYP has also designated individuals in all 98 parishes and 36 schools within the diocese as Safe Environment Coordinators who verify all appropriate members have had appropriate training, and that each facility is in compliance. Each SEC is designated by the local priest and works as an extension of the OCYP.

“It takes a special person with a passion for the safety of children,” Huffman said.

Each coordinator attends annual meetings, trainings and are very familiar with the Virtus database, making sure their facility is compliant with curriculum and frequency of background checks. They are knowledgeable about volunteers and those who work closely with children and youth at their parish or school.

At St. Ann in Excelsior Springs, Chris Sanders is entrusted with maintaining the safety of children within the parish.

“I make sure everyone working with children is in compliance with diocesan guidelines regarding background checks, ethics and Protecting God’s Children,” Sanders said. “My job is to make sure everyone is doing that so our children are in safe environments.”

Sanders said that many times, people have wonderful intentions to include children, but don’t realize there are safeguards in place that place stipulations on how and where children may serve. For example, children must be in the care of their parent/guardian or a trained adult who has received all diocesan training.

“There are never too many guidelines and safety checks regarding children. I think of all of these kids like my own, and worry about them,” Sanders said.

According to Carrie Cooper, Director of OCYP, the Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph has offered training to over 35,300 adults since 2002. Nearly 13,000 children and youth received training last year alone.

“Each year, we continue to empower adults and children by arming them with knowledge and awareness in order to make this diocese a safe place for all,” Cooper said. “Each year, these efforts continue to strengthen our safety net of protection.

Investigation and integrity 

According to Kansas City’s Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, child sexual abuse happens every day, with little regard for social class, racial or ethnic groups, religious affiliations or sexual orientation.

The following statistics were published by the Diocese for National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April

  • Did you know that 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys, will be sexually abused by the age of 18?

  • 73 percent of child sexual abuse victims do not tell anyone for at least a year.

  • 45 percent of victims do not tell anyone for at least 5 years.

The Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph thoroughly investigates any and all allegations that come forward. Each allegation is investigated independently by an Ombudsman, an independent contractor for the diocese. The Ombudsman acts as a public liaison, who receives allegations and independently investigates reports of abuse, suspicious or inappropriate behavior, ie. boundary violations, and misconduct within the diocese.

Jenifer Valenti has been the Ombudsman for the Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph since 2011. With background working with Jackson County Prosecutors Office, Valenti has experience in investigating and prosecuting thousands of cases of physical and emotional abuse.

“It’s really important that the diocese is transparent about allegations,” Valenti said.

Instead of handling investigations internally, the Diocese immediately reports all allegations to civil authorities including law enforcement and the Children’s Division at the Missouri Department of Social Services. After those investigations conclude, the Ombudsman will conduct a separate, complete and fair investigation.

“Clergy abuse has been very public,” Valenti said. “I think the reason for that is because it’s such a violation of trust.”

Valenti reports her findings to the Independent Review Board. The IRB is comprised of individuals from the community from various professions who have experience related to law enforcement, the criminal justice system, children’s advocacy, psychology, education and ministry. The board, who listen to allegations and analyze Valenti’s investigation, submit an action plan to the bishop of the diocese, Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., to determine if someone is suitable for ministry in the Diocese.

“We have to do everything we can because we know kids are vulnerable,” Valenti said.

The Diocese of Kansas City—St. Joseph OCYP Annual Report

In the past year, there were 79 total reports within the diocese. According to the OCYP Annual Report, from July 1, 2016—June 30, 2017, there were 12 reports of sexual abuse within the diocese that named 12 individuals, and an additional nine boundary violations. Of those 21 reports, six named clergy, five named employees, seven named volunteers and three named a religious order or community that falls outside of the jurisdiction of the diocese.

In response to the 12 reports of sexual abuse, one allegation was determined to be credible. The credibly accused was deceased and previously removed from public ministry. An internal investigation determined that one allegation was unsubstantiated, meaning that sufficient evidence demonstrated that the allegation did not occur as claimed. Two allegations were unable to be proven after investigation. It was determined that there was insufficient evidence to determine if the allegation of abuse did or did not occur. Four cases are still pending investigation. In the meantime, all named in the allegations have been placed on precautionary administrative leave, restricting from practicing any form of ministry or service until the investigation is concluded. Four cases were referred to an outside religious community or another diocese.

The 2016-2017 OCYP Annual Report outlined that nine boundary violations were reported. The diocese defines a boundary violation as crossing a well-established boundary with a child, and possibly, a warning sign of potential sexual abuse.

“When people cross boundaries, the concern is that what they’re doing is grooming a child for sexual abuse,” Valenti said.

Boundary violations can include a wide range of behaviors or actions, including an adult sitting too close to a child, seeking alone time with a child or giving a child a special gift or favor. The diocese urges all adults who interact with children to respect a child’s boundaries and report others who do not.

“Typically, sexual abuse is a process of grooming a child to prepare them to be sexually abused,” Valenti said.

Valenti explained that some boundary violations result from a lack of understanding or sensitivity, and others may be so serious that they could point to an immediate or future threat to children.

“We want to be proactive in this diocese,” Valenti said. “If we see any of our people, our mentors that are working with kids, crossing boundaries, we want to find out why they’re doing that.”

Victim services and advocacy

“Our prayers are with the individual who came forward, which takes great courage, and with all those who have been affected,” Carrie Cooper, Director of OCYP said of the survivor who came forward in the most recent allegation against Hoppe.

Each survivor who reaches out to the Diocese will almost immediately have the opportunity to meet with a Victim Services Coordinator. Kathleen Chastain is an advocate for the victim, who will provide compassion and care to survivors of abuse and their families.

“The desire for me, as a representative of the Church is to provide support or care to anyone who’s been harmed,” Chastain said. “My role is to walk with them on their journey, as much as they allow me to, of hopefully healing and reconciliation.”

Chastain’s goal is to simply advocate for the victim.

“That takes different forms depending on what their individual needs are,” Chastain said. “My hope, when I meet with someone, is that they’ll allow me to create a relationship with them and provide professional support to them so that we can discover what it is that their needs are and the Church can help do that, to try and make things right.”

As an advocate, Chastain explained that some victims want that, some do not.

“Sometimes they think they want something and then by working with professionals, they discover that’s not really what’s going to help them feel whole,” Chastain said. “And sometimes it is.”

Valenti explained that sexual abuse is hard to talk about, and often, people don’t want to believe that it happens.

“The fact that the Diocese is talking about it, has helped at least one person,” Valenti said.

Valenti hopes that even though sexual abuse something we don’t want to believe happens, if we talking about it, we can help people and serve fairness and justice.

“The fact that the Diocese is talking about it, has helped at least one person,” Valenti said.

Valenti explained that she feels like The Boston Globe Spotlight series helped many victims come forward because it gave them courage to see that they were not alone.

By encouraging transparency and opening a conversation the difficult subject comes forward into the light of day. It gives that child a voice to say, “I wasn’t the only one, and I need help.”

She continued by saying there are parishioners who probably loved Hoppe and would never believe that he could have hurt someone.

“It could be a parent who loved him, and he hurt their child,” Valenti said.”

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