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Kansas' Bishop Brungardt remains under abuse investigation

The bishop of Dodge City, Kansas, remains under criminal and canonical investigation, nearly a year after state authorities began looking into an allegation that the bishop sexually abused a minor. The bishop, who denies the allegation, stepped down from ministry when the allegation was announced.

Ecclesiastical authorities charged with conducting a Vatican-directed investigation say the Church’s process is moving forward in conformity with canon law.

Bishop John Brungardt. Credit: Diocese of Dodge City

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said Feb. 8, 2021 that the agency was investigating an allegation of abuse made against Bishop John Brungardt, who has been Bishop of Dodge City since 2010, and was before that a priest of the Diocese of Wichita. The agency did not indicate when Brungardt was alleged to have abused a minor.

A Feb. 8 statement from the Dodge City diocese said that Brungardt “denies the allegation and is fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation.”

In an unusual move for a bishop, Brungardt’s diocese announced that the bishop would “step aside from his duties until the matter is resolved.”

While nearly a year has passed since those announcements, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has offered no update or resolution to the investigation, and has not responded to numerous requests from The Pillar requesting an update.

The allegation against Brungardt is believed to have been received by a KBI task force set up in 2019 to investigate clerical sexual abuse, receive allegations of abuse, and review diocesan records. In October 2021 the KBI said it had opened 122 cases as a result of its tip line and investigations into the four dioceses of Kansas.

Neither the diocese nor the KBI have indicated when the alleged abuse might have occurred. As a diocesan priest in Wichita, Brungardt served as a high school chaplain and religion teacher, as diocesan chancellor, and as a pastor at several parishes. Before he was ordained a priest at 40, Brungardt taught science and computers at two Wichita high schools.

After the allegation was announced, Brungardt wrote in a Feb. 9, 2021 pastoral letter that “I adamantly deny that there is any truth to this allegation and unequivocally assert that I have never in my sixty-two years abused any person - sexually or otherwise. It is my hope that the investigation will lead to an understanding of how the misconduct that has been alleged, that I did not engage in, could possibly have been attributed to me, so that the resolution of this matter will be based upon facts and not any other basis.”

In addition to the KBI investigation, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City was directed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to oversee a canonical investigation into Brungardt, under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi, the policy promulgated by Pope Francis in 2019 for investigating abuse or administrative misconduct on the part of bishops.

“I welcome the process now underway and pledge my full cooperation,” Brungardt wrote last February of the canonical process.

A spokesperson for Naumann, Anita McSorley, told The Pillar this month that the canonical investigation is in its preliminary stage, which is “moving forward according to [canon] law.”

Vos estis lux mundi requires that the preliminary investigation into an allegation against a bishop be completed within 90 days, unless the Vatican extends the term. While McSorley did not indicate the reason Nauman’s investigation has extended well beyond 90 days, Vatican guidelines prohibit Church investigations from interfering with civil criminal processes, and recognize there are cases in which it “seems appropriate to await the conclusion of civil investigations” before concluding the preliminary canonical investigation.

Whether investigating priests or bishops, canonical investigators in the United States generally wait for the results of law enforcement processes before concluding their own reviews, as the results of a criminal investigation can weigh heavily in a canonical process.

Bishops are not ordinarily required to step down from ministry while they are investigated for allegations of abuse or administrative negligence. Some Kansas priests told The Pillar they believe that Brungardt might have chosen to do so as a gesture of solidarity with priests, who are ordinarily removed from ministry as soon as a plausible allegation against them is raised, and as an expression of respect for the alleged victim and the criminal investigation itself.

Brungardt did not address that decision in his statement last February. But the bishop did call for assistance to the victims of sexual abuse.

“As your shepherd and pastor, I believe that truth must ultimately prevail. It must also be our priority to assist any person who has experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual harm because of sexual abuse and to do whatever we can to bring about his or her healing and peace, and ultimately, enable those harmed to achieve justice,” Brungardt wrote.

Since a wave of clerical sexual abuse scandals began in 2018, at least 10 U.S. bishops have been investigated for abuse or administrative misconduct.

Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota was the first bishop to be investigated under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi; Hoeppner resigned from office in April 2021, after a probe of more than 18 months into serial administrative misconduct and cover-ups. Two other bishops, Robert ​​Guglielmone and Nicholas DiMarzio, were cleared after Vos estis investigations into allegations of abuse.

Investigations into other bishops remain ongoing.

Bishop Jerry Vincke of Salina, Kansas, was appointed to lead the Dodge City diocese as apostolic administrator during Brungardt’s absence.

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