Father Jason Johnston was removing an old picture frame from its place on the wall in St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville on Tuesday afternoon.
The frame included clippings from the Catholic Times and black-and-white photos of the men who have served as ministers for the church.
As Johnston tucked the frame away inside his office, the reason for its removal was obvious. It included priests Paul Canonici and Jack Smith — two of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi the Diocese of Jackson identified as those credibly accused for sexual abuse of minors.
The diocese released the list of names Tuesday morning following a press conference in Jackson, though diocese officials noted it leaves out the names of two ministers currently involved in ongoing investigations.
Along with Canonici and Smith — both of whom served at St. Joseph’s in Starkville — the list includes Cuthbert Bender who served at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Aberdeen and possibly Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus, though the church secretary said she hasn’t found a record of Bender serving there.
Jackson’s is the latest diocese to release a list of names of priests investigated for sexual abuse, along with those in Ohio, California, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, New York, Maryland and Virginia.
“It is my hope and prayer that releasing these names will confirm our commitment to transparency in the pursuit of our promise to protect and our pledge to heal harm caused by abuse in the church,” diocese Bishop Joseph Kopacz said in a released video statement. “… The time for trying to keep these cases quiet in the church has come to an end.”
Kopacz and other diocese officials blamed a “stigma” against reporting abuse by priests and said the church is working to erase that stigma by encouraging victims to come forward and teaching staff and parishioners to recognize and report signs of abuse.
The list’s release has sparked optimism from some area Catholics, who say it’s proof the church has learned its lesson after decades of covering up sexual abuse scandals by simply moving accused clergy to different parishes.
Others are more cautious. One 23-year-old woman from Starkville, who did not want to be named in the story, said while she is glad the list has been released, it’s another reminder of the cover-ups.
“It gave me even more of a reason to not go to church at all,” said the woman, who was raised Catholic but who has stopped attending church as an adult. “I consider myself Catholic. I believe in the ideals of Catholicism. I don’t agree with the practices. The history of the Catholic Church has made me question it.
“I think releasing (the list), though it’s late, it shows they are owning up to it,” she added. “Anybody who represents the church and their faith and does that to a child, or anyone at all really, should not be shuffled around to another pool of victims.”
The list was compiled from investigations where an independent review board found the accusations to be “credible.” Of the 37 ministers named, 27 have died, including Smith and Bender. All have been removed from the ministry.
It includes 18 diocesan and extern priests; 18 members of religious orders, which are made up of both priests and lay people; and one permanent deacon, an ordained minister who can be married. The oldest was born in 1883 and the youngest in 1958, and the reported abuses all occurred between 1939 and 1998. In some instances, there are more than 50 years between when the abuses occurred and when they were reported.
Canonici and Smith served at St. Joseph in the 1970s, according to church records — Canonici in 1971 and Smith from 1975-77.
The revelation that two former priests of St. Joseph are tied to allegations of abuse comes only a few months after Starkville priest Father Lenin Vargas was accused of defrauding parishioners of tens of thousands of dollars. Vargas, who the Jackson Diocese has since removed from ministry, claimed that some of the funds were for medical expenses due to a cancer diagnosis and others were for a church and orphanage in Mexico, according to federal agents investigating the case.
Vargas, the court filings say, was diagnosed with HIV, rather than cancer and used the funds for personal uses — such as a subscription to a dating site for people with HIV.
The details of accusations against Canonici and Smith are less clear — Canonici’s abuses reportedly occurred in the Madison area starting in 1983 and Smith’s reportedly occurred from 1972-80 in multiple sites.
Though Smith died before his abuses were reported in 2003, Canonici spoke at Mississippi State University in April. According to an article from The Reflector student newspaper, Canonici, who is a Ph.D. graduate of the university, spoke about Delta Italians in an event organized by MSU Italian Lecturer Rosy Nigro.
Canonici was removed from ministry in 2002, five years after the diocese received reports he had allegedly abused a minor.
The Dispatch could not reach Canonici for this report, but he vehemently denied the abuse allegation to The Clarion Ledger.
Though Johnston, who recently arrived at St. Joseph after a reassignment by the Jackson diocese, said he’ll likely keep the picture of Canonici and Smith in his office, he acknowledged it’s impossible to erase the memory of the two men.
“In a way, it’s a part of our history, and we can’t completely get away from that,” he said. “They’re on here with some good men.”
‘An effort at transparency’
The Dispatch spoke to several area Catholics, all of whom said they were happy the list had been released, even if it had been a long time coming.
One St. Joseph parishioner, who asked to remain anonymous, said she thinks it’s a good first step at rebuilding trust between the diocese and parishioners, a sore point for some parishioners who previously told The Dispatch they were upset the diocese had known about Vargas for years before parishioners learned he was being investigated.
“I do feel like the diocese doing that is an effort at transparency, which is refreshing,” she said. “Right now … we have such a distrust of the diocese where at least if they’re willing to do that, that’s a step in the right direction.”
Paul Ackerman, a parishioner of Annunciation and an inactive priest who was laicized so he could get married, compared it to the scene in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” when the main characters pull back the curtain to reveal the titular wizard has been an ordinary man all along. Now that the abuses are out in the open, not just in Mississippi but all over the world, he said, the church can begin the process of reforming and moving forward.
“This is history in the making,” he said. “This is awesome stuff. Let’s get the scab off the sore.”
But not all were as optimistic. The 23-year-old from Starkville noted the final date an abuse occurred, according to the list, is the 1990s. While diocese spokespeople said that was the most recent of the abuses that have been reported, the Starkville woman was skeptical.
“That alone screams that it’s not a complete list,” she said. “It’s about time they’ve come clean about everything.”
Annunciation parishioner Karen Overstreet, however, said that proves the church is reforming for the better.
“I’m heartened in a way that these credible accusations seem to end in the ’90s and early 2000s,” she said.
All those The Dispatch spoke with also said they retain their faith, despite the known abuses.
“The church is made up of flawed people, people that attend church and people that lead church,” Overstreet said.
She said it wasn’t just the abuses that have upset Catholics, but the cover-ups by church leaders. She said most congregants are trusting those leaders have learned their lessons.
“It’s our job as parishioners to hold them to it,” she said.
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