Trust, safety don’t come from church silence

David prevailed over Goliath in the famous tale from long ago using an unconventional weapon, his sling and a few stones.

These days, river rocks aren’t a potent weapon. Now, it might just be the spotlight.

And the spotlight was shining brightly last week in Iowa when an Associated Press reporter cracked open 32 years of cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church’s Sioux City Diocese.

The AP report motivated church leaders in Sioux City to do something they had resisted for decades. They admitted that one of their priests was a sexual deviant, although they did not choose that blunt word. Nor did they use the term “criminal,” although he certainly is that.

Until the disclosures by the AP’s Ryan Foley made headlines across the nation, the diocese had successfully concealed from its 100,000 unsuspecting members, from law enforcement officers and from the unsuspecting public the despicable conduct by one of its priests.

Father Jerome Coyle, now 85, admitted to church leaders in 1986 that he was sexually attracted to and had “victimized” about 50 boys over the span of about 20 years. During that time, Coyle had served in 10 Iowa communities.

After he made his admission, church leaders sent Coyle to a Catholic treatment center for priests in rural New Mexico. Coyle was not defrocked, but he was told he could no longer present himself as a priest or dress as one.

He had an apartment in New Mexico until being injured a year ago in a serious traffic crash. He was unable to care for himself afterward, so an Albuquerque, N.M., couple he had befriended --- unaware of his past --- invited him to stay with them and their three teenage children.

When Coyle was sent to New Mexico in 1986, church officials said only that the priest would be on medical leave. There was no mention that he had admitted engaging in sexual abuse of boys. There was no effort to try to identify his victims. There was no effort to bring law enforcement in to assist.

That wasn’t our policy at the time, the church now says. It might be a coincidence, but the bishop of Sioux City to whom Coyle admitted his abuse and asked for help was Lawrence Soens.

Before becoming bishop, Soens served Catholic churches and Catholic schools in the Davenport Diocese. In 2005, seven years after he retired, Soens was sued for sexually abusing boys when he was principal at Regina High School in Iowa City in the 1960s.

His victims, and dozens of victims of other priests in the Davenport Diocese, shared in a $37 million settlement that grew out of the diocese’s bankruptcy in 2006 because of mounting legal exposure from abuse cases.

The Associated Press disclosures last week came after the news service learned of a letter an aide to the current Sioux City bishop, R. Walker Nickless, sent in February to the Albuquerque couple with whom Coyle was living. In that letter, the couple learned for the first time that the man they knew as Jerry actually was a priest and an admitted pedophile.

In the letter, while acknowledging “your kindness and Christ-like attention and care you have provided Fr. Coyle,” the diocese said it “cannot condone the risk you take by allowing Fr. Coyle to reside in your home.”

By the time the letter arrived, the couple had been providing shelter for Coyle for four months, and it took another four months before church officials found a new place for Coyle to live.

Until Coyle moved out, the father of the three teens prowled his home at night, making sure the doors to his children’s bedrooms were locked and Coyle was in his own room.

The Sioux City Diocese moved Coyle to a church-run care center in Fort Dodge in June. Once again, church leaders felt no need to notify the public there, or residents of the care center whose grandkids might visit, or parents of students at nearby Saint Edmond Catholic School.

Coyle is unlikely to face criminal charges because of the amount of time since the incidents.

But it is unlikely the distrust of Catholic leaders will go away soon. Is it any wonder people are skeptical about church leaders’ commitment to change after the decades-long practices kept the public in the dark and seemingly condoned these horrible abuses with silence?

In the understatement of the year, a Sioux City Diocese spokeswoman said last week the church knows the Coyle case could have been handled better.

But some in the church, in a shot at the Albuquerque couple, wondered why people with concerns about Coyle’s past had contacted a reporter, rather than the diocese’s abuse hotline.

Perhaps, because the couple knew the spotlight needed to shine before truly meaningful change would occur.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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