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Two priests in Lincoln diocese reassigned with restrictions, following review of alleged misconduct

October 20, 2021 Catholic News Agency 0
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska in St. Peter’s Square, a day before the canonization Mass of St. John Henry Newman, Oct. 12, 2019. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Washington D.C., Oct 20, 2021 / 16:09 pm (CNA).

Two priests in the Diocese of Lincoln are being reassigned to ministry with restrictions, following diocesan review of accusations of sexual misconduct. Neither priest was reportedly charged with a crime.

Fr. Scott Courtney, suspended from active ministry in September 2018 over accusations of having sexual relations with an adult woman, has now been assigned to minister to prisons, nursing homes, and retirement homes, as well as providing administrative assistance to the chancery, starting in January 2022. 

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln said in an Oct. 8 statement that the reassignment was made after a hearing from the ministerial conduct board. Courtney had undergone “a professional evaluation and a period of personal renewal,” he said. 

Another priest, Fr. Thomas Dunavan, has been tasked with providing administrative assistance to the chancery and helping retired priests, as of Nov. 8, 2021. In March 2019, shortly after he was ordained a priest, Dunavan faced an accusation of sexual misconduct that dated back 20 years. He was placed on administrative leave following the allegations.

“After commissioning an independent investigation, consultation with the Holy See, and hearing from the ministerial conduct board, restrictions have been imposed on Father Dunavan’s public ministry,” Bishop Conley said in a separate statement on Oct. 8. 

According to the state’s criminal justice website, neither priest was charged with a crime, the Lincoln Journal-Star reported.

A third priest in the diocese has recently retired after pleading no contest to serving alcohol to a 19-year-old male. 

Fr. Charles Townsend resigned his pastorate at St. Peter church in Lincoln in August 2018, and in May 2019 was found guilty of providing alcohol to a minor; he had pleaded no contest to the charge. The Journal-Star reported that the 19-year-old was an altar server. The diocese says it investigated the matter and forwarded its findings to the Holy See.

Townsend was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 18 months probation. The Lincoln diocese said that while his relationship with the then-19-year-old was inappropriate, it was not sexual in nature. 

In July, the diocese announced that imposed restrictions on his public ministry and that he was a retired priest. 

“The Congregation for the Clergy, after its independent examination of the matter, determined that no perpetual penalty could be imposed on Fr. Townsend,” Conley stated on July 23.


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Catholic mental health council applauds Bishop Conley’s candor on mental illness

November 23, 2020 CNA Daily News 2

CNA Staff, Nov 23, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- When Catholic bishops and leaders share their experiences with mental illness, it encourages other Catholics to seek help and to know that recovery is possible, a national Catholic group has said.

In a statement issued Monday, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness applauded Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska “on his complete candor regarding his recent experience of coping with mental illness.”

“Based on Bishop Conley’s public testimony, other individuals in leadership positions are more likely to be upfront about their mental wellbeing. They too are seen as capable of recovery and are finding ways to become more effective and committed to ministry than ever before.”

“An illness is an illness not a weakness of character,” the group said.

In an interview with CNA earlier this month, Conley shared his experiences after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and while taking an 11-month mental health leave of absence for his recovery.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn’t fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak,” Conley told CNA in an interview published Nov. 14.

The misconduct of Catholic clergy, both locally and at large, weighed heavily on Conley, starting in the summer of 2018. There were also some difficult school closings and the death of a young priest, those events were triggers for the anxiety and depression that Conley experienced.

He tried first to get help while continuing his duties as a bishop, but in late 2019 Conley presented his case to the apostolic nuncio, who advised the bishops to take some time off and receive professional help. Conley spent 11 months on leave, receiving help in Phoenix, Arizona from doctors and psychologists and a spiritual director.

His return to the Diocese of Lincoln was announced earlier this month.

Conley told CNA he has been open about his experience because he wants to encourage others to seek help when they need it.
Such testimonies can be a helpful step in increasing awareness and advocacy for others with mental illness, the NCPD explained.

Conley told CNA this month he had initially been afraid that his mental illness would be seen as a sign of weakness. But he said that after he announced his mental health leave, people reached out to him, saying they were grateful for his willingness to share about his experience.

The group encouraged other Catholic leaders to share their testimonies of mental illness and recovery, and to work to connect their communities to mental health resources.

“Through the awareness made possible by such testimonies as Bishop Conley’s, doors can open to ensure that anyone seeking help, including family and friends, will have easy access to information, referrals, and good sound advice,” the NCPD said.

The NCPD was founded in 1982, with the mission of providing resources and advocacy for disabled Catholics, with a focus on participation in the sacraments and parish life of the Church.

The NCPD’s Council on Mental Illness was founded in 2006, with this mission: “Following Jesus who embraced all, we reach out to accompany our brothers and sisters with mental illness and their families while assisting the Catholic community by providing resources and education for spiritual and pastoral support.”

Advocacy for people with mental illness “promotes a just society and an end to stigma, which is the biggest obstacle towards healing and recovery,” the group said in its statement.