Five Questions with Julia Feder, Heather Fryer, and Rebecca Murray on Research Challenges

Julia Feder is the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality and  associate professor of religious studies and theology at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. She is the author of Incarnating Grace: A Theology of Healing from Sexual Trauma. For Taking Responsibility, Julia has been investigating the case of Daniel Kenney and its impacts in the broader community of Creighton Prep and the city of Omaha.  

Heather Fryer is is an independent scholar who served on the faculty of the History Department at Creighton University from 2004-2021. Her publications on the social history of the American West include Perimeters of Democracy: Inverse Utopias at the Wartime Social Landscape in the American West (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) and the documentary film Shinmachi: Stronger Than a Tsunami (American Public Television, airing on PBS from 2019-2024). She is recent past editor of Peace & Change: a Journal of Peace Research.

Rebecca Murray is a professor of criminal justice and associate dean at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.  Her works include effects of urban structures on crime, wrongful convictions and victim advocacy, and has published works in journals such as Criminal Justice Review, Contemporary Justice Review and Crime and Delinquency.  She founded the Nebraska Victim Assistance Academy through a U.S. Federal Grant awarded from the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime.  

1) What does the title “Just One Jesuit” want to convey? In an interview at “Awake Milwaukee,” you mentioned that “by studying one perpetrator, you end up studying a bunch of people.” Can you say a little more about your methodology?

 

JF: We’ve focused our project on one perpetrator: Daniel Kenney, a former Jesuit priest who taught theology and sex education at Creighton Preparatory High School in Omaha, Nebraska from 1965-1989.  While Kenney is not the only priest perpetrator who taught at Creighton Preparatory High School during this time, he is the most well-known.  Kenney was a popular Omaha priest, beloved for establishing a longstanding city holiday charity drive and a summer camp for economically disadvantaged Omaha youth.  He was frequently written about in the local newspaper and often served, as one interviewee put it to us, as emblematic of Creighton Prep’s brand of forming young people into “Men for Others”.  We wondered whether examination of Kenney could provide an entry point into a better understanding of the broader context of clergy sexual abuse in Omaha (and beyond) at Jesuit Catholic institutions.  

We have undertaken a systematic review of public documents (i.e., newspaper articles, lists of credibly accused priests by the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Midwest Jesuits), archival records, and conducted 20 interviews with survivors, Omaha community members, alumni of Creighton Preparatory High School, and colleagues of Daniel Kenney. 

When we began this project, we had a hunch that examining one perpetrator would give us insight into more than just one individual’s actions and its effects.  But, we’ve been surprised about how much this original intuition has proven to be true.  We’ve discovered that during the time that Kenney worked at Creighton Prep, there were six other priests who have been credibly accused of abusing minors also on staff at the school.  Survivors that we interviewed reported collaboration between these priests to grant Kenney access to minors during the school day for private confession.  Though it is unclear whether each priest knew what the others were doing, at least one survivor reported to the Omaha World Herald that, after reporting sexual harassment to the Dean of Students at Creighton Prep in the 1980s, he was asked, “Don’t you know better than to hang out with a guy like that?”  We continue to have questions about who knew about Kenney’s abuse before he was removed from ministry in 2003. 

2) What were the main obstacles you encountered in conducting this research? What kinds of access did you have and what kinds of information were you able to gather in order to reach your conclusions?

JF: Given the numerous data collection efforts, our obstacles varied substantially, depending on the type of information we were seeking and who we were seeking it from. Stonewalling, Missing Data and Limited/Confusing information, and simply the power of the Jesuits all played into difficulties we faced with this project.  

While publicly available data was straightforward to obtain, we struggled with conflicting public information – for instance, the attorney general’s report indicated a singular victim in Kenney’s case, whereas the Jesuits noted “8” and newspaper accounts “19”.  This also highlights the confusing nature of who ‘takes responsibility’ as the authority on what happened and where the information is housed.  Originally Kenney was on both the Archdiocesan and Midwest Jesuit lists of priests with credible allegations of abuse, but then he was removed from the Archdiocesan list.  However, the Attorney General’s report was made with Archdiocesan records, not those of the Jesuits.  Although schools were required to turn over records, it is unclear whether the records now in the Archives of the Midwest Jesuits (including job performance documents) were subpoenaed or obtained by the AG’s office.

The overwhelming majority of Jesuit priests and administrators we have contacted for interviews have denied our requests— most citing the following reasons in some combination: they are not at liberty to discuss personnel issues; it is unjust to discuss this case at all for fear of compromising victim confidentiality; or, they don’t really know anything that would help us to understand this case.  The first reason—classifying this as a personnel issue—sidesteps the real issues at play here.  Academic researchers are poised to help Catholic institutions identify patterns of problems among their personnel and can help them to identify solutions, if institutions are willing to share that information with researchers.  Jesuits have often pointed us in the direction of their own victim advocate coordinators for our questions and as evidence that they are working hard to avoid further abuses, but when we have asked this same individual whether she is equipped to do any systematic analysis of the Jesuit abuse crisis or draw out any patterns from individual cases, she has flatly told us: No.  She is not in a position to do this.  This is precisely where academic research can contribute.  On our research team, we have a theologian, an American historian, and a criminologist.  We have the tools to do this kind of analysis, but we do not have access to the data.   

Though we are ourselves Catholic educators, funded by Catholic research money, and rigorously monitored and approved by a Catholic institutional review board to insure that we do not compromise the dignity of our research subjects, we are often seen as nothing more than individuals seeking out salacious details to create a public relations crisis when there really is none.
Feder, Fryer, and Murray

 Second, we have encountered confusing signals about insider-outsider boundaries in the course of our research.  Not surprising to us is the boundary drawing within Catholic institutions between those who operate within the institution as priests, lay ministers, educators, and students from outsiders such as journalists and the media.  Catholic institutional actors are wary of journalists looking for a “gotcha story” and are nervous about fabricated public relations scandals.  Bracketing whether this suspicion of journalists is itself warranted or not, we have been surprised by the number of times that Catholic clergy and administrators explicitly expressed nervousness about us as academic researchers, comparing us to journalists.  Though we are ourselves Catholic educators, funded by Catholic research money, and rigorously monitored and approved by a Catholic institutional review board to insure that we do not compromise the dignity of our research subjects, we are often seen as nothing more than individuals seeking out salacious details to create a public relations crisis when there really is none.  As one Jesuit administrator told us: “while I believe that your assurances that you are researchers and not legal scholars or journalists are offered in good faith, I hope you can understand that from [our] perspective that this is a distinction without a difference. . . . a project such as this is certainly a public relations matter, no different than if this research were undertaken by a journalist.”  These comments are from an administrator at an educational institution.  If there is no distinction between academic research and the work of journalists, even in the minds of educational administrators, we have traded a sense of the integrity and worth of academic research for anxiety about public relations and protecting institutional funds. 


We have encountered pervasive institutional defensiveness. Instead of committing to non-defensive transparency as the foundation for trust, many of our institutions wish to build trust by talking about how trustworthy they are.
Feder, Fryer, and Murray

Third, we have encountered pervasive institutional defensiveness. Instead of committing to non-defensive transparency as the foundation for trust, many of our institutions wish to build trust by talking about how trustworthy they are. Assuring the public that they can trust an organization is not the same thing as actually earning or building that trust. As my research team has approached Jesuits and administrators of Jesuit institutions seeking information about the case that we are researching, we have been denied access to any concrete information while at the same time assured repeatedly that Jesuit protocols are sufficient for addressing abuse. As one Jesuit put it to us, while he declined to be interviewed for the project, he advised us to pivot from investigating Daniel Kenney’s case to reporting on how the Church has “taken steps to rectify its procedures and processes so that the painful past is not repeated.” He assured us, “I could put you in touch with experts on all that has been done to have safety valves in place.” But, when we contacted those individuals they wouldn’t consent to an interview either. They would only provide emailed answers to questions in line with protocols that they have developed as standard responses to journalists. But, again, we are not journalists. We are academics working for a Jesuit institution, funded by a Jesuit institution, and approved by a board of our peers with the expressed mission to help assist Jesuit institutions to do their work in more effective and faith-filled ways. The familiar adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” applies here: all is a public relations crisis, and so information is locked down and institutions treat all investigators defensively.

3) Your project draws on the intersections between notions of sex/gender with clergy abuse. At a certain point you used the expression “interstitial masculinity.” What does it mean? What role does it play in the dynamics of sexual abuse?

When we started this project we were struck by Kenney’s deliberate use of confessionals and counseling rooms as sites for abuse. The Creighton Prep alums that we interviewed treated these physical spaces as details. They wanted us to see how Kenney set traps for his victims by creating psychological “safe spaces” for freshman boys within Prep’s pervasive culture of masculinity. Once we started to see how Kenney used Prep’s measures of masculinity as a mechanism for abuse, we started to see the full extent of the harms he inflicted that have gone unaddressed. 

Students who attended Creighton Prep during Kenney’s tenure (1965-1989) were socialized into one of two models of manhood: the secular leader or the future priest. The secular leader embodied all the dimensions of traditional American masculinity: athleticism, leadership, charisma, college readiness, and showing the signs of reproducing the wealth, civic status, and respectable families of Prep’s most prominent alumni.  There was a just-right blend of personal excellence and bro culture which, while challenging to strike, was the key to entering the fold of the Prep community and being validated as a “man for others”–with the strong emphasis on “man.” 

Alternatively, students had a funnel to the priesthood at Creighton Prep, though our interviews suggest that this number of Prep men was quite small. For priests in general, masculine competence is measured through the strength and endurance of his renunciation of many of the hallmarks of a more worldly masculinity. College readiness, leadership, and respectability were common across both ideals. Athleticism and popularity were optional. Charisma was optional. Personal wealth and embodied sexuality were, by this model, off the table. Both models of masculinity at Creighton Prep were rigorously heteronormative. The stakes in being validated as a “Prep man” for the fourteen-year-old freshmen were enormous, as they sought the acceptance of the student body and of the Omaha community who held successful Prep graduates in high esteem. Our interviewees referred again and again to the pressure to “do manhood right” from the moment they arrived at Creighton Prep. They said relatively little about being good scholars or good Catholics. 

Kenney put himself in positions where he would be a role model and mentor to freshmen—and freshmen only—but these positions did not make much sense. His official role was to teach theology but only a handful of the alumni we interviewed remembered his teaching, including those who were in his classes. The more vivid memories were of his human sexuality classes, in which he drew absurdly large penises on the chalkboard for reasons the former students could not recall. The greater number of interactions, however, took place at freshman football practice where Kenney, showing no signs of being knowledgeable of football or having the least athletic talent, provided “moral support” and ran a few drills with the freshmen who were desperate to make the team. Football was king at Creighton Prep and football players’ masculine bona fides were automatically beyond question. The ground for fourteen-year-old male panic was far more fertile on the football field than it would ever be in a theology class, though Kenney readily imposed his “male mentorship” upon any freshman he judged to be unsettled at Creighton Prep.

For all of his male role modeling, Prep alums struggled to articulate “the kind of man” that Kenney was. He made a lot of money for his own projects, through donor channels that nobody was certain of. He spent part of his summers among sexual revolutionaries and counterculturalists in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, which he justified by drawing comparisons to Jesus. Clad in cowboy boots, Roman collars, and nerdy cardigans, Kenney sported a monkey hand puppet, a vestige of childhood that encouraged his 14-year-old targets to resist the pull of adulthood.


Kenney was not endeavoring to mentor freshmen into secular adulthood or the priesthood. Instead, he reconfigured Creighton Prep’s two masculine ideals to create the illusion of a valid third space—an interstitial masculinity that welcomed vulnerability, celebrated transgression, and invested Kenney, a priest, with expertise in sexuality instead of theology. Instead of validating the worth of Creighton Prep freshmen who were terrified of “un-masculinity” or marginalized from the Prep brotherhood, Kenney formed the psychological space in which he groomed, abused, and silenced freshmen in plain sight.
Feder, Fryer, and Murray

The stories were consistent. Kenney would call freshmen who expressed emotion, feared leadership, questioned their sexuality, made few friends, failed a class, fumbled a football, experienced poverty, or had absent fathers into confessionals and counseling rooms. The conversations often started oddly, but Kenney affirmed that they belonged at Creighton Prep. In this unguarded moment of validation as a man through a supportive connection with an older man, Kenney would bring the weight of his position as a priest to bear by making himself the ultimate arbiter of their masculinity: Kenney would inspect the freshman’s penis to determine their “adequacy” as a man, and asked whether their mothers knew that they masturbated. In a matter of minutes, Kenney’s victims were reduced to their penis size, confused by the role of a priest in their adult life, and were pushed into a discussion of their mother that ruptured their relationship with the central feminine figure in their lives. The damage was–and is–deep, lasting, and invisible when held up to the legal definition of “sexual abuse.”  

Identifying Kenney’s interstitial masculinity gave us a way of seeing how, and to what effect, Kenney exploited Creighton Prep’s culture of masculinity to perpetrate abuse over decades. 

4) We have heard that your team has partnered with a nonprofit organization that supports victim-survivors abused in a church context. Can you tell us more about this partnership?

 

We knew that, in talking with survivors, we wanted to have a trauma-informed approach to interviews.  We knew that this research project might prompt survivors to reflect again on old wounds or, perhaps, to recognize wounds for the first time in the midst of an interview.  And, we wanted to provide resources for those who have been harmed by Kenney to have access to accompaniment and healing, whether or not they participate in the research project.  We partnered with Into Account— a nonprofit that specializes in advocating for survivors in their efforts to seek justice and pursue healing free of charge– to advise us on how to speak with survivors with sensitivity and to offer survivors of Kenney’s abuse different reporting options. Survivors can contact Into Account to discuss different options for telling their story.  If survivors are interested in participating in our research, but would like to do so with a survivor-advocate present, Into Account has the staff to support that.  If they are not interested in participating in the research and would like to explore other options for reporting, Into Account will never share any information with our research team without the survivor’s permission.

We see partnership between researchers and victim advocates as a fruitful way to move forward the project of “taking responsibility”.  Research, without the support of victim advocates, can risk retraumatizing research participants and leave survivors without support for healing.  Victim advocacy, without the support of research, misses critical opportunities to identify patterns and root causes of abuse.  

5) What are the questions that remain unanswered in this particular case about Daniel Kenney, but also in the broad context of clergy sexual abuse?

We have learned a lot from the research that we have been able to do, but we have many more unanswered questions.  What did administrators and colleagues know about Kenney’s abuse before he was removed from ministry in 2003?  Why was he understood by some in Omaha as “a guy like that,” while still beloved (and entrusted with the care of minors)?  What does the Jesuit Archives have under embargo, and why for so long? Survivors may never know what happened since Kenney’s records are under seal until at least 2060.   

We were only approved by IRB to focus our research on Omaha.  We were surprisingly prohibited from researching abuse in other locales.  This makes us wonder, what was outside the perimeter of our IRB approved research area?  Did leaders and community members at Pine Ridge Reservation know about Kenney’s history of abuse of minors when he was moved there in 1992?  Did leaders and community members in Nairobi, Kenya know about Kenney’s history of abuse of minors when he was moved there by the Midwest Jesuits in 1993?  To what degree do different international reporting requirements play a role in incentivizing movement of perpetrator priests overseas?  Is victim/survivor advocacy within organizations such as the Jesuits adequate in places where legal protections for minors are lacking or nonexistent? 

What prompted Kenney’s laicization in 2020, and why did he continue to reside with the Jesuits until his death in 2022? Is the quiet laicization of perpetrator priests enough to rebuild the trust of those who have been harmed by clergy sexual abuse?  What can Jesuit institutions do to more effectively recognize abuse while it is happening and to empower bystanders to report abusive priests to people who can promptly address harm? How can Catholics build a broader culture of non-defensive transparency and accountability?  

How can Catholics build a broader culture of non-defensive transparency and accountability?  
Feder, Fryer, and Murray
First image: Wikimedia Commons/AlexiusHoratius)
Forth image: Into Account's Impact Report (2022).
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