Fargo bishop calls allegations against former colleague 'disturbing'

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FARGO—John Folda, the Catholic bishop of Fargo, remembered the man who inspired him to go to seminary as a tough, uncompromising priest with high standards for his charges.

When Folda attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Rev. Leonard Kalin was a recruiter for the priesthood and an overseer of priests in training from the Lincoln Diocese.

"He was pretty rigorous, I would say, in his expectations of us in terms of celibacy and propriety," Folda said. "There was never an inconsistency in what he said and the way he acted around us in terms of celibacy. What I'm hearing now about him, I find to be—it's disturbing."

Kalin, who died in 2008, was accused in August by two men of making sexual advances on college students and seminarians under his actual or spiritual authority. Other priests in the Lincoln Diocese and elsewhere, most prominently Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., face similar accusations or worse; priests in Pennsylvania were recently alleged to have abused more than 1,000 children.

Until now, Folda has not spoken publicly about his relationship with one of the accused, which he characterized as a normal relationship between a student and an advisor. But the bishop has been publicly reflecting on abuses, many kept secret by the church, that have recently been in the news. Folda penned an Aug. 30 letter to the editor of the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in which he acknowledged the suffering of victims and pledged to respond to all allegations, including reporting to civil authorities as required.

The Fargo Diocese, which covers the eastern half of North Dakota, is currently reviewing a complaint against a church worker for an incident or incidents that happened several decades ago, according to Folda. He said the church has reported the matter to police, something it does immediately if a crime has been alleged or the law otherwise requires, though it also conducts its own review.

Unwanted advances

The way Folda described him, Kalin was a polarizing figure. "Some people thought he was—they didn't like him because he could be tough. He could be pushy. But on the other hand, many people found him to be very helpful in their Christian lives."

Folda said he was one of the latter.

Peter Mitchell, a former priest who met Kalin in 1994 as a seminarian, was one of the former.

In an Aug. 1 column on the American Conservative blog, he accused the elderly Kalin of "maneuvering young men into unwanted intimate situations" such as asking a seminarian to take him on his afternoon walk and then insisting the seminarian help him shower. Mitchell said he always found an excuse not to do so, but "I know that the men who did—and there were many—endured Kalin's attempts to initiate sexual contact with them."

The former priest said he was inspired to disclose Kalin's wrongdoing after news emerged that McCarrick was accused of sexually abusing minors and sexually harassing seminarians.

After Mitchell's column was published, Wan Wei Hsien, who worked for the ailing Kalin as an assistant from 1998 to 1999 while a seminarian and college student, disclosed Kalin's "unwanted sexual advances" toward him and another seminarian in an Aug. 3 public letter to James Conley, the bishop of Lincoln.

"These gestures included verbal sexual compliments, asking to be touched in inappropriate places, and molestation, including repeated requests for French kisses," Wan wrote. "They were not made all at once, but after I'd known him for several months, and even then, only gradually, in increasing degrees of intimacy. In retrospect, this followed a rather standard pattern of grooming, though I did not know it at the time."

These allegations are all the more damaging because Kalin, both as vocation director and a popular figure in American Catholicism, evaluated seminarians and influenced the assignments of priests. "In a word, he held complete control over our lives if we wanted to become priests," Mitchell wrote.

The blog labeled it a "#MeToo" moment for the church.

Kalin retired in 1998. The church has said it spoke with him about the allegations, and Wan said he heard later that the bishop at the time required Kalin be accompanied by at least two assistants on his walks. But otherwise his behavior was not known to the public until recently.

What Folda knew

Folda, who met Kalin in 1979 as a college student, said Kalin offered advice that helped him and many others decide to become priests, including answering questions about celibacy. "I believe one of the things he told us was many people think celibacy will mean you'll be lonely throughout your life, and he said if you're living your priesthood fully, then you won't be lonely. You'll have people in your life all your life."

Thinking about Kalin's expectations and his actual alleged behavior, Folda said, "It makes me think how important it is to be honest and consistent in the way we live our lives and the way we guide others. The advice we give others—we better be walking the walk."

When Folda went off to seminary in Philadelphia in 1983, Kalin would occasionally check in on his charges and visited with them in Lincoln during summer break.

Folda said he got to know the older priest better, though as one of 30 to 40 seminarians, not as a special friend. Though he didn't dismiss the accusations against Kalin, he said, "I never experienced it myself. I never witnessed it. My fellow seminarians never complained about it either. I never heard anything along those lines."

After becoming ordained as a priest in 1989, Folda said he didn't talk regularly with Kalin because they never were assigned together and Folda was often in a different parish. He said the American Conservative blog had supposed that the two shared a mentor-protege relationship but that's just not true.

During the time that Folda was physically in the Lincoln Diocese, from 1989 to 2013 with a two-year break from 1991 to 1993 while he was assigned to Rome, according to his biography, the bishop said he heard of only one complaint against Kalin. Folda said he wasn't involved in personnel matters and not privy to the details, though he knew a college student had filed the complaint in 1998 or 1999, when he became rector of the diocese's then-new seminary.

Bishop Conley responded to these allegations recently in an Aug. 4 letter to the Lincoln Diocese in which he acknowledged complaints against Kalin, including that he drank, smoke and gambled too much—Mitchell said he filed a complaint of that nature—and that Kalin conducted a "physical boundary violation"—this sounds similar to the complaint Wan said he filed.

Pope Francis elevated Folda to bishop in 2013 after 14 years as seminary rector.

Folda said during his time at the Lincoln Diocese several allegations against other priests were made public and he was aware of them. The ones that have recently appeared in the news, however, are new to him also, including the ones involving Kalin, he said.

Another wave of allegations

It's been 16 years since a celebrated Boston Globe investigation into the Boston Archdiocese's cover-up of sexual abuse allegations against its priests inspired other media investigations around the country and the world.

The last few months brought yet another wave of allegations made public.

In late June, the Holy See removed Archbishop McCarrick from ministry after investigating allegations he had sexually abused a teenager 47 years ago. More victims would come forward, including those victimized as children and as seminarians.

In early August, allegations were made online against Kalin, as well as a church pastor who "developed an emotionally inappropriate, non-sexual relationship with a 19-year-old male which involved alcohol," according to Conley's letter. Other allegations soon followed, and the Nebraska attorney general's office is investigating.

In mid-August, a federal grand jury accused church leaders in Pennsylvania of covering up sexual abuse of children by priests over the past 70 years.

In his Aug. 30 letter, Folda said that since 2002, the church has had measures to respond to abuse allegations, and they've been "applied rigorously" in the Fargo Diocese. These include background checks to screen candidates for priesthood; training to ensure a safe environment for children, including training adults to recognize signs of abuse; and independent audits.

"When there is an allegation, then we respond to it immediately," he said. "There's no brushing it aside if an allegation was correct."

Folda said the church as a whole could "absolutely" do more than it is now, including some kind of mechanism to hold bishops, the highest order of clergymen in the church, accountable. "I think the recent events have made it clear that's something that has to happen," he said, referring to allegations against McCarrick.

Folda said he agreed with the call by Samuel Aquila, his predecessor and now archbishop of Denver, to have an independent investigation of McCarrick and whoever covered up his actions. But Folda said he's still waiting to see some concrete proposals because the ones he's heard of don't go far enough.

But there are some steps the bishop feels may be too far for the Fargo Diocese.

In 2016, after several dioceses around the country released lists of accused priests, often following lawsuits, the Fargo Diocese was asked if it would release its own list. Victims advocates say releasing these names can prevent future abuses and help victims heal.

The diocese refused then, with Chancellor Andrew Jasinski citing the church's need to protect the privacy of personnel files just like other institutions.

Folda said Thursday that he was new to the diocese then and wanted to get a good understanding of the history of these allegations.

Still, he said, the list will remain confidential for now, "but I'm not going to rule it out entirely." He said he remains concerned about the rights of victims who have indicated a desire, in some cases very strong desires, to not have the names of those they accuse made public. "That's not the only thing, but that really is paramount. We're trying to always respect the wishes of those who make the allegations."