James M. Janssen
Father James Janssen is an example of the coordinated efforts by church officials to shuffle around priests who they know have sexually abused children. Janssen was ordained a priest in 1948 in the Diocese of Davenport in Iowa. He appeared abruptly in the Diocese of Joliet in 1956 as resident at Saint Isaac Jogues in Hinsdale—fresh off a short leave of absence for sexually abusing two children at a YMCA in Newton, Iowa. Bishop Leo Hayes, the leader of the church in Davenport, had instructed Janssen “to leave the Diocese immediately or just as soon as possible.” While ministering at Saint Isaac Jogues, Janssen did undergo “treatment” at the Loyola Center for Guidance and Psychological Service. Yet he was allowed unrestricted access to children in the Saint Isaac Jogues community.
Janssen took advantage of this freedom to continue to abuse children. In September 1958, the pastor of Saint Isaac Jogues forwarded to Bishop Hayes sexually explicit letters between Janssen and a 14 year old parish boy. The boy’s “heartbroken” mother had found the letters and turned them over to the pastor in the hopes he would see to it that Janssen was disciplined. But the pastor dismissively referred to Janssen’s abuse of the boy as a “relationship” and a “sordid mess” that threatened to undermine the priest’s otherwise “excellent work” at Saint Isaac Jogues with the Boy Scouts and parish teenagers. “Thank God,” he said, “this horrible thing has not spread to other boys.” The cover letter from the pastor to Bishop Hayes does not express any concern for the boy’s safety or well-being, and there is no evidence the church had done anything to protect parish children from Janssen’s abusive tendencies.
The response from Bishop Hayes—who knew, of course, that Janssen had sexually abused multiple children prior to arriving at Saint Isaac Jogues—focused on the church’s reputation: “It is consoling to know that no general notoriety has arisen, and I pray that none may result.” The bishop promised to “confront” Janssen about the abuse but failed to mention any action he would take to support the young survivor in Hinsdale. A short time later, Janssen was shuffled back to the Diocese of Davenport, where “[h]e confessed his guilt” to Bishop Hayes. The bishop observed he “was not too favorably impressed with [Janssen’s] general attitude, and my hopes for his emendation are not too high.” Nevertheless, Janssen was permitted to minister in the Diocese of Davenport for another 30 years.
The church’s failure to act in 1958 was an opportunity lost. In his more than 40 years of active ministry, Janssen abused at least 36 children. One of them was Janssen’s nephew; in 2005, a jury awarded him $1.9 million in damages for abuse that began in the 1950s, when the boy was just 5 years old and living in Chicago, and continued for almost a decade. Janssen abused other children in front of his nephew and even offered the boy to another priest for further abuse.
In July 2008, the Diocese of Davenport added Janssen to its list of credibly accused priests. The Diocese of Joliet, however, failed to do the same for another 10 years. Janssen first appeared on Joliet’s public list in December 2019 only because of the Attorney General’s urging.