By JOANNE FOX
Bishop R. Walker Nickless acknowledged the consternation and sadness of the faithful when details concerning the news of adolescent sexual abuse by a former diocesan priest surfaced.
“I understand the public, our parishioners’ and victims’ dismay at the information publicized in the Oct. 31 Associated Press article regarding former priest Jerome Coyle,” he said. “The topic was discussed at the ‘conversation and listening’ session on Oct. 30 in Fort Dodge and was to be reported on in The Catholic Globe.”
The article reported the Diocese of Sioux City did not reveal for decades Coyle’s admission that he sexually abused dozens of Iowa boys while serving as a priest from 1959-86.
“No one presently at the diocese had firsthand knowledge about Jerry Coyle and that includes me,” Bishop Nickless said in a prepared statement that appears on the diocesan website in both a text and video.
The circumstances surrounding the revelation of Coyle’s abusive behavior began with a Nov. 14, 2017, car accident in New Mexico.
“Since then, we have been attempting to put the pieces together about what happened during the 1980s with the files and records that we do have on Jerry Coyle,” Bishop Nickless explained. “There was never an attempt to cover anything up; in fact, we disclosed a great deal of information to those in New Mexico who were having direct contact with Coyle.”
In 1985, Coyle was sent to Minnesota to be trained as a hospital chaplain. On Feb. 7, 1986, the co-supervisor of the program sent a letter to Bishop Lawrence Soens stating Coyle indicated that he had been “overt” in his behavior with young boys.
The co-supervisor recommended Coyle be sent to the Servants of the Paraclete foundation house in Jemez Springs, N.M., for further evaluation. The Paracletes are a religious order that ministers to clergy who exhibit psychological and physiological disorders, including sexual attraction to children and teenagers.
Coyle was sent to the foundation house and on May 15, 1986, Bishop Soens received a letter from the Servants of the Paraclete. The letter reported that in a 20-year period, Coyle admitted to wrongfully touching up to 50 boys between 7th to 10th grade.
On May 22, 1986, in a letter from Bishop Soens, Coyle was relieved of all responsibilities for parish duties in the Sioux City Diocese.
During the balance of 1986, Bishop Soens received reports from the Servants of the Paraclete on Coyle. They covered such things as spiritual direction, psychiatric counseling and group therapy. Toward the end of the year, it was determined that Coyle would remain in the program into 1987.
Victim comes forward
On May 9, 1988, a diocesan priest called the chancery and reported that he had been approached by a college student who said he had been molested years before by Coyle. However, the young man discontinued contact with the intermediary priest.
On May 12, 1988, Bishop Soens sent a letter to Coyle in New Mexico, suspending him from the priesthood.
The director of the foundation house offered to allow Coyle to live in an independent living apartment under the Servants of the Paraclete and attend weekly therapy sessions.
In March 1990, Bishop Soens visited the Servants of the Paracletes. Coyle’s psychiatrist told the bishop that Coyle was not acting out sexually and was not a risk to the public at large. However, he felt it would not be “prudent” to put him in a situation with children.
On June 15, 2002, The Dallas Charter was adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” mandated the creation of Diocesan Review Boards, comprised largely of lay people, to give bishops advice and guidance on claimed clergy abuse.
Between 2002 and 2017, victims of clergy sexual abuse came forward and the Diocese of Sioux City investigated their claims and assisted them with compensation.
No victims came forward making allegations against Coyle during this time, Bishop Nickless pointed out.
“In the 32 years in which Coyle resided in New Mexico, there were no complaints or allegations that Coyle was having improper contact with minors,” he said. “According to the personnel files, Coyle was living a civilian life, attending church and doing volunteer work.”
On Dec. 11, 2017, Coyle and Reuben Ortiz jointly called and left a voice mail message for Bishop Nickless regarding a car accident Coyle had on Nov. 14, 2017.
Ortiz had come to know Coyle through the Servants of the Paraclete and indicated he was aware Coyle had been sent to them for treatment.
As a result of the accident, Coyle, at age 85, relinquished his driver’s license. Ortiz did not feel Coyle could live independently and had allowed the former priest to live with the family for almost three weeks; however, Ortiz said they were looking for more permanent living arrangements for Coyle.
Bishop Nickless called Ortiz back and expressed his reservations about allowing Coyle to reside with the family. Ortiz assured the bishop that Coyle had told him “everything” and Ortiz believed in “redemption and mercy.”
In February 2018, the Coyle/Ortiz matter was discussed by the Review Board. The consensus was that Coyle should not remain living with the Ortiz family.
On Feb. 12, Father Brad Pelzel, vicar general, wrote a letter to Ortiz, outlining Coyle’s self-admitted abuse and attempting to dissuade Ortiz from allowing Coyle to reside in his home.
On May 12, Bishop Nickless received a text message from Ortiz stating that Coyle insisted on moving back to Sioux City. Ortiz indicated he would help with the move; however, others assisted with Coyle’s move to the Marian Home, Fort Dodge, on May 31.
Bishop Nickless reported that since the AP story appeared, four individuals have come forward with reports of incidents that involved sexual abuse by Coyle.
“Diocesan officials are now in communication with these individuals and civil authorities are being contacted, since we have named victims now,” he said.
Bishop Nickless acknowledged that when Coyle self-admitted, the churches and schools at which he served should have been notified.
“Victims should have been encouraged to come forward at that time,” he said. “However, the church often sent priests to treatment, in hopes that sexual misconduct could be cured. We know now that is not the way to handle any allegation of sexual misconduct.”
The review board is preparing a list of clergy credibly accused of sexual misconduct for release.
“It cannot be said enough that we are truly sorry for the pain victims have and will face throughout their lives,” Bishop Nickless said. “We want to do what is right to help them now and we plead with them to come forward and tell their story, so that we can have it on record.”
Victims are encouraged to contact Angie Mack, victims assistance coordinator, toll free at (866) 435-4397 or in Sioux City at (712) 279-5610.