“Just One Jesuit”:

Communities’ Accounts of the Effects of Clergy Sexual Abuse through the Lens of a Singular Priest’s Mission Activities


Project Description

When both the Midwest Jesuits and the Archdiocese of Omaha released their lists of priests credibly accused of abusing minors in 2018, Daniel Kenney stood out as the most beloved priest on the list.  Known throughout Omaha as “the Monkey Priest” since he often carried a monkey hand puppet named “Buford,” Kenney was the founder of the popular philanthropic event “Operation Others” where Omaha Catholic schools collect and distribute food and other needs to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods around the Thanksgiving holiday., He also and established “Camp Buford,” the overnight wilderness camp in Wyoming for economically disadvantaged Omaha youth which operates today as Go Beyond.  He is remembered as a charismatic theology teacher and compassionate Freshman football coach at Creighton Preparatory High School who often accompanied boys who didn’t fit the stereotypical mold of a Creighton Prep student– hyper-masculine, athletic, affluent, and with a stable home life.  Kenney cared about reaching out to students who had experienced significant traumas or disruptive events, and did so under the guise with an air of spiritual ‘healing’ – which gave him a mechanism to probe for intimate information from them.  Our initial project aimed at researching this “one Jesuit’s” methods of abuse, but also how he maintained admiration and trust within the school and broader community for years after he was dismissed after a credible allegation of abuse was brought to light. 

Our research led us down many paths we did not expect, including numerous public and archival documents that suggested Kenney may not have been a singular ‘rogue’ priest, but that others may have been not only aware of his actions, but helped to facilitate them.  In addition, interviews with community members and alumni helped us begin to fill in a picture of both the culpability and pain felt in the broader community of Creighton Prep and the city of Omaha. 

Key Findings

1) As we have already hinted at, our first finding is that Kenney’s abuse was not a singular series of abuse incidents by one single person. It confirms other Taking Responsibility Project findings that clergy sexual abuse is systemic within and across Catholic organizations, and not a problem particular to a subset or subculture of priests who fit a particular profile. As our study expanded, we discovered investments in and patterns of involvement in excusing, hiding, and rehabilitating the image of the bold and affable Monkey Priest that spanned the Omaha community and secular authorities in Douglas County and the State of Nebraska.

2) The absence of language and practices to construct healthy masculinities contributes to clergy sexual abuse. Kenney carved out an interstitial masculinity within the culture of Creighton Prep that created a logic supporting his “therapeutic” explorations of the “masculine development” of boys within the pool of Omaha’s future leaders. The Jesuits, Prep, and Omaha have yet to challenge the deep conceptual inconsistencies within the Kenney narrative.

3) The closed system of the church makes it incredibly difficult to track cases of abuse that were not actionable in court.  More specifically, Kenney, and we’re sure, other priests like him, operated with significant stealth, often using the cloak of confession to both create a false sense of security for his victims and to facilitate a mechanism of plausible deniability for himself.  Likewise, both school and church administrators are able to use the cover of either “victim privacy” or “personnel matters” as a way to keep helpful information out of public eye.  This means that incidents such as odd or inappropriate behavior, or even church and state systems established to address clergy sexual abuse were activated in response to the credible allegations against Kenney, but absent prosecution, it is unclear to whom and for what they have “taken responsibility,” or if they ever will. 

4) Practices of identifying priests through a liberal or conservative lens has both served to mitigate offender behavior and to distract from the issue of clergy sexual abuse.  Our interviews revealed a potential conflict surrounding Kenney’s social progressivism and self-disclosure about his alcoholism garnered him sufficient empathy to remain within the fold of Omaha society. He remains for many “a good priest, on balance.” Likewise, the idea that he may have offended because of a progressive agenda also serves to distract from the effects suffered by his victims. 

5) The Kenney case is ongoing as long as Creighton Prep, the Omaha Archdiocese, the Jesuits, state authorities and large segments of the Omaha community continue efforts to relegate it, and his victim/survivors’ experience, into an unactionable past.  We rely on survivors to force accountability, but how can they challenge the prevailing Kenney narrative? Making allegations against Kenney continues to carry the risks of marginalization from power, opportunity, and belonging in Omaha.

Principal Investigators

Julia FederJulia Feder, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.  She received her doctoral degree in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2014. She specializes in theological anthropology, theologies of suffering, sexual trauma and human evolution.  She is a leadership team member of the Catholic Theological Society of America’s “Consultation on Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.”  Her academic articles appear in Theological Studies, the Journal of Moral Theology, the Journal of Religion and Society, Anthropology News, and Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences.  Her book, Saving Grace: Sexual Violence and Christian Salvation will be published by Fordham University Press in the Fall of 2023.

Heather FryerHeather Fryer, Ph.D., is a social and cultural historian of the 20th century US west who was on the faculty at Creighton University from 2004-2022. She is the author of Perimeters of Democracy: Inverse Utopias and the Wartime Social Landscape in the American West, the biography of Servant of God Edward J. Flanagan for the dossier for his Cause for Canonization, and the PBS documentary Shinmachi: Stronger Than a Tsunami She is past executive editor of Peace & Change: a Journal of Peace Research.

Rebecca MurrayRebecca K. Murray, Ph.D., is a Professor of Criminal Justice and an Associate Dean of Social and Applied Sciences at Creighton University.  Her research areas include the urban environment and crime, systemic and organizational issues in the criminal justice system and victim advocacy. Through a federal grant from the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, she was able to create the first Nebraska Victim Assistance Academy, which brings training to victim advocates across the state. She also holds a certificate in Ignatian Tradition, and has published in the area of Jesuit leadership.  Most recently, she is a Co-PI researching the ways in which social media contributes to mob creation with a grant from the Department of Defense.