Stan Schulte, a 37-year-old chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, comes from what has been described as “Catholic royalty in the Lincoln diocese.” That is, the sprawling Schulte family is a pillar of the Nebraska diocese, which has long enjoyed a national reputation for vigorous Catholic orthodoxy. He was raised in Blessed Sacrament parish, where his mother was a secretary. He graduated from Pius X High School. His uncle, Jim Benton, 71, is a veteran priest of the diocese.
Father Benton also molested him as a child, according to Schulte, who is revealing it here publicly for the first time. In an emotional phone conversation late Sunday night, Schulte alleged that on a rectory sleepover in Seward, when he was an adolescent, his uncle attempted to sexually assault him.
“I woke up to him grinding up against me with a vise grip over me, dry-humping me. I didn’t know what was going on,” says Schulte, through tears. “I was able to throw him off, and I sat in a chair in the room all night, staring at him. I couldn’t sleep. My brother was sleeping next to him. I wanted to get my brother and run out of there, but I was a minor. What was I supposed to do? As a kid, you’re taught not to go against priests. You feel like you’re the bad person.
“I buried that,” Schulte says. “I buried it until this year.”
What brought the memory back was watching the acclaimed 2017 Netflix documentary series, “The Keepers,” which examines the unsolved 1960s murder of a Catholic nun, including evidence that a priest was the killer, and that this fact had been covered up.
After watching the series, Schulte went to his mother, Linda Schulte, last November, and told her what had happened to him. She believed him.
“While I love my brother very much, and I know that Stan does too, I support Stan completely and admire his honesty, strength, and courage in coming forward at this time in order to help other victims feel that they also can come forward,” said Linda Schulte in a statement to The American Conservative.
According to correspondence between Stan Schulte and the Diocese of Lincoln, Father Benton denies his nephew’s allegation. When I reached Father Benton on his cell phone Monday morning at a priest’s retirement home in Lincoln, he tersely denied that he had molested his nephew. When pressed for details, he said, “I don’t really want to talk about it, thank you,” and ended the call.
Last week, when I contacted the Diocese of Lincoln for comment about another possible sex case involving a cleric, Monsignor Timothy Thorburn, the vicar general, referred me to Richard Rice and Andrew Pease, lawyers representing the diocese. They did not return a phone message I left last week. I left a second message this morning for them.
The two lawyers returned it in a conference call, but said they had only been authorized to take down information I might have about possible sexual offenses by clergy. They had no information about ongoing cases. I told them that the diocese had referred me to them for information. As it stands now, I’ve hit a stone wall trying to get information from the Diocese of Lincoln. But I’m trying.
Back to Stan Schulte. When he broached the subject of his own alleged molestation with his mother last fall, Schulte told her that he believes that there might be more to a 2000 incident involving his uncle than the family previously believed. In that year, says Schulte, a meeting with the extended Schulte and Benton families was called, in which they discussed that some kid had formally lodged a false allegation of molestation against “Uncle Jim.” The stress had been so great that Uncle Jim had gone somewhere back East for treatment. Everybody was told to pray for Uncle Jim in this ordeal.
I could not verify the 2000 incident. Linda Schulte confirms that she was present at the family meeting when they discussed the allegations against her brother Jim. She does not remember if they had been told whether or not Father Benton had been sent for sexual abuse treatment, or whether they were given a vague story about “health issues.”
“I was so upset and sickened by the information given to me that night at my sister’s about Jim that I kind of shut down,” she tells me. “I don’t remember any specifics.”
When I asked the diocesan lawyers this morning if Father Benton had been sent for treatment in 2000 following that allegation, and if indeed a formal allegation had been made, they declined comment, repeating that they were only authorized to take down information about unknown abuse complaints.
Stan Schulte says he personally knows another victim of Father Benton, but that this person is unwilling to come forward at the present time. Schulte alleges that this victim was 14 years old at the time, and it happened when Father Benton was a Lincoln seminarian. Schulte describes the alleged assault, the details of which he asked not be published. It is much like what he says happened to him in his Uncle Jim’s rectory bed.
According to Schulte, this minor was the first known victim of Uncle Jim. The minor reported it to a priest at the time, but the priest buried the allegation. Says Schulte today, “Had the priest who was told about that reported it at the time, and had the diocese taken action, I wouldn’t have been molested.”
Schulte says that when Father Benton was sent away in 2000, his parish at the time, St. John’s, was told that it was for health issues. This was the same rationale the diocese gave last year to the people of St. Peter’s parish in Lincoln, to explain the sudden disappearance of its pastor, Father Charles Townsend. We now know that Father Townsend had actually been sent for treatment after the assistant pastor, Father Tim Danek, reported him for an incident involving alcohol and inappropriate behavior with a 19-year-old man in the parish.
A chancery culture of deception makes it hard for victims to come forward, says Schulte.
“We don’t know any of the history of these priests,” he says. “If the diocese says they want to be transparent now, why are they not going to all of these parishes where there is a known legitimate allegation against priests who had been there, and telling people, and asking any other victims to come forward?”
Lincoln’s previous bishop, Fabian Bruskewitz, who oversaw the diocese from 1992 until his retirement in 2012 , was criticized by the US Catholic bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection for refusing to submit to the post-2002 auditing program for Catholic dioceses. This 2006 story from a conservative Catholic news site reports the on the chastisement:
Without holding back his outrage, Bruskewitz has come out swinging. In a statement issued March 31, he wrote, “The Diocese of Lincoln has nothing to be corrected for, since the Diocese of Lincoln is and has always been in full compliance with all laws of the Catholic Church and with all civil laws.”
The bishop writes, “It is well known that some of the members of (the National Review) Board are ardent advocates of partial birth abortion, other abortions, human cloning, and other moral errors. It is understandable then how such persons could dislike the Diocese of Lincoln, which upholds the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”
The story’s author observes that among US Catholic dioceses, Lincoln is “one of the most faithful and has among the lowest rates of child abuse by clerics in the US.” One must ask: how would we have known that for sure? How can anybody today, 12 years later, trust the Diocese of Lincoln to have ever told the truth? In any case, that kind of language indicates how revered the Lincoln diocese is on the Catholic right, and how quickly many have been to assume that criticism of its sex abuse policies are because critics disapprove of its Catholic orthodoxy.
On Sunday night, Schulte provided copies of correspondence between himself and Father Daniel J. Rayer, the diocesan chancellor. In a May 7 letter on diocesean stationery, Father Rayer informed Schulte that after an investigation, Bishop James Conley had determined that there was not enough evidence to warrant a canonical trial of the alleged assault (which, recall, would have happened over 20 years ago, and was not reported at the time.) The case had gone to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which, according to Father Rayer’s letter, had sent back word that the call for how to deal with Father Benton would be the local bishop’s.
Father Rayer wrote:
Bishop Conley subsequently imposed upon Father Benton multiple restrictions. In summary form, Father Benton will not be given a ministerial assignment and will remain in the status of retired from active ministry with residence at the Bonacum House for retired priests. He will not be permitted to offer sacramental assistance to the parishes in the Diocese of Lincoln like other retired priests. He will be permitted to celebrate Mass at Bonacum House, on priest retreats, and to concelebrate at the major diocesan liturgies with the Bishop such as at the annual Chrism Mass, ordinations, or funerals of priests and religious sisters for example.
So: Bishop Conley apparently believes that the allegations by Schulte are true enough to suspend Father Benton’s active ministry, and keep him out of parishes. The letter also includes an offer of $3,000 to cover Schulte’s counseling bills, should he seek therapy. But the public was never notified as to why Father Benton was removed from active ministry. Nor will priests, nuns (such as those who care for residents of Bonacum House), or others with whom he might interact know anything about the sexual assault allegations against him.
Schulte had expressed concern about his Uncle Jim’s presence on Facebook. The retired priest has over 3,100 friends there, including minors:
Schulte worried that his uncle’s postings indicated that he had traveled to Venezuela. He also expressed concern that Facebook could be a vector of contact that could lead to abuse – and that parents of minors would be completely in the dark about the true character of the elderly priest who was their children’s Facebook friend.
Father Rayer responded in the May 7 letter:
I would like to address some of the concerns you expressed to me in our phone conversation. I want to assure you that part of the restrictions imposed upon Father Benton is that he is not allowed be [sic] alone with minors and he is not allowed to sleep overnight in a private home unless he were to have express permission to do so. Therefore, I can assure you that he has not traveled to Venezuela in the recent past nor will he be permitted to travel there in the future. In reviewing his Facebook page, it is understandable that one could get the impression that he had traveled there. The Bishop has not forbidden him from using Facebook, but has forbidden him from posting any picture of minors.
Father Benton has also voluntarily agreed to use the Covenant Eyes internet accountability program in order to monitor his Internet usage.
What this amounts to, it seems to me, is: trust us. No diocese has the capability of ensuring that a priest who wants to use social media won’t do it. Nor can they make certain that he will never sleep in a private home, or travel. Retirement homes for aged clerics are not prisons. They aren’t even cloistered monasteries.
As a frustrated Stan Schulte said of his uncle, “He’s still actively friends with minors on Facebook.” Late Sunday, I captured these screenshots from Father Benton’s Facebook page.
He goes on:
I have been fighting all by myself for the past nine months. These unknowing parents are sitting there, with the children as Facebook friends with my uncle the priest. The diocese has not warned them about him. We have such blind trust for priests. He has access to their children. They don’t even know what’s going on because the diocese has hidden it under ‘health issues.’
One striking aspect of my intensely emotional interview with Stan Schulte, in which he broke down crying several times, is his repeated expression of love for priests, loyalty to the Catholic Church, and even love for the uncle he says molested him.
“I’ve lived my whole life loving my uncle,” Schulte says, sobbing. “I think he’s a good person, no matter how deep this problem goes. He hasn’t had anyone to help him. He just kept being moved from parish to parish.”
“I feel like my uncle is unable to even get support from fellow priests in regards to his problem because they too are left in the dark and are not able to show compassion or much-needed support. This, I am sure, makes him feel isolated and alone as well.”
Schulte continues, “There are a lot of amazing priests I respect and love, and I fear some of them don’t have a voice, knowing how much potential corruption there may be above them.”
The sense within the diocese that it has to live up to an “impossible” standard of perfection inhibits frank discussion of its real problems, Schulte believes. Peter Mitchell, a former Lincoln priest whose TAC essay last week set off a round of #MeToo disclosures in Lincoln, agrees, saying that the diocesan structure and culture compels silence and stonewalling.
“I am sorry that there is so much hurt in this moment when people are discovering for the first time that the healthy exterior of their Church conceals a deeply dysfunctional and wounded interior,” Mitchell tells me, reflecting on the many accusations over the past week that he is trying to sow division in the diocese.
“This is deeply painful for all involved, myself included,” Mitchell says “But my own experience has led me to understand that confronting and acknowledging the truth of the dysfunction is always better and healthier than ignoring and denying it. The ‘way out’ is by walking in faith through the pain, not by running away from it back into denial and dishonesty.”
Why did Schulte come forward now? Last week’s revelations on this blog by Peter Mitchell, a priest of the diocese who was ultimately laicized for sexual transgressions with adult women, and the subsequent #MeToo testimonies by others in the diocese, gave him the courage to speak out.
“The thing that drove me to come forward to my family is that I didn’t want my nieces and nephews to suffer this,” he said. “How many other victims in this diocese have become alcoholics? How many have committed suicide? How many have not been able to have normal lives because of what was done to them? We the people of this diocese are the body of Christ. We deserve better.”
“I fear my uncle may have hurt more people,” he says. “How many priests like him are still in a position of power? How many other children are still vulnerable? How many priests who have allegations against them have moved up in the ranks, and stayed quiet to protect each other?”
He is also coming forward for the sake of Lincoln’s priests. “I think some of the most amazing priests in the country are in our diocese. They deserve to have honest, truly transparent leadership within the diocese that they love and serve.”
That said, Schulte feels that to this point, he has been abandoned by Lincoln’s clergy. Last week, he posted this on Facebook:
“I think it’s important to say that even having one priest come forward to support you is so important,” Schulte tells me. “I said on Facebook this week that I was a victim as well, and that this [problem] needs to be looked at. A priest put a heart sign on it. I cried for 30 minutes, because this was the first time in a long time that I felt love and support from the Church. I broke down and cried because as a victim, you start to feel like the whole church will hate you if you come forward and mess up the façade of perfection that the Church portrays itself to be.”
In the past few days, says Schulte, multiple Lincoln priests have reached out to him privately to offer their support, “which means the world to me.”
But I have to ask: Do they have the courage to do so publicly?
That remains to be seen.
I ask Schulte if he and his wife plan to have children one day. Yes, he says, they do.
“Do you plan to raise them in the Church?” I say.
He replies, “I can’t right now, knowing what I know.”
These are the stakes for the future of the Roman Catholic Church in this country. Stan Schulte comes from one of the most solid and involved Catholic families in one of the most respected conservative dioceses in the United States. He is a man who weeps copiously when talking about his love for the Church. And yet, because of his own experience of abuse and cover-up, he cannot commit to raising his children as Catholics.
Think about that.