Diocese removed Iowa priest after girl reported touching

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A longtime Roman Catholic priest in Iowa has been removed from the ministry indefinitely after a girl complained a year ago that he improperly touched her, a diocese has confirmed.

The fourth-grader alleged that the Rev. Brian Danner of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Humboldt rubbed the top of her leg while taking her confession, the Diocese of Sioux City told the Associated Press. The girl’s parents were “extremely upset” and complained to church officials, recalled diocese lawyer Michael Ellwanger.

The diocese reported the incident to the county attorney last December and has revoked Danner’s ability to function as a priest indefinitely. Its review found that Danner’s actions were inappropriate but didn’t constitute sexual abuse, Ellwanger said.

Authorities did not pursue a criminal investigation after the girl’s parents said through a representative that they were unsure whether they wanted to move forward and never followed up, Humboldt County Attorney Jon Beaty said.

Danner’s attorney, Tom Mohrhauser, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment. The diocese said Danner is living with relatives for now while his prospects for returning as a pastor are uncertain.

The girl’s family has not filed a lawsuit but is represented by Des Moines attorney Steven Durick, who said they were motivated to protect other children.

“Their biggest concern is having somebody like this just released and sent out into the world,” he said.

The news comes as the diocese is under scrutiny after acknowledging last month that it had covered up the Rev. Jerome Coyle’s 1986 admission that he had sexually abused 50 boys over the prior 20 years. A total of four men have now come forward saying they were victimized by Coyle, Ellwanger said.

Danner, 51, has been with the diocese since 1995, serving throughout northwestern Iowa, including at parishes in Mapleton, Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Sioux City, and Rockwell City. He helped Mapleton residents recover from a devastating 2011 tornado and was involved in last year’s closure of a church in Gilmore City.

Ellwanger said the diocese had never previously received a complaint about Danner and his removal divided parishioners in Humboldt, a town of 4,700 people. While Bishop R. Walker Nickless has discussed the case with them, the broader public has been kept largely in the dark about what happened.

In May, the diocese disclosed in its official newspaper that Danner had been granted a leave of absence retroactive to Dec. 1, 2017 but didn’t explain why.

The bishop confirmed the removal of a priest in response to a question at an Oct. 30 public meeting on the church’s sexual abuse crisis, and again in a statement issued earlier this month after AP made inquiries on the case. But neither statement identified Danner.

During his removal, Danner is not to say Mass, wear a collar or be called “father,” among other restrictions.

The diocese vowed earlier this month that it would publish a list of priests who have been credibly accused of abusing minors for the first time. Ellwanger said he intends to have that accomplished by the end of the year, although it would not include Danner given the diocese’s characterization of his conduct.

Beaty, the county attorney, said a criminal investigation could not move forward without the girl’s assistance. “In order to prosecute this allegation, we need cooperation and a victim,” he said.

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