The bishop of Dodge City, Kansas has been cleared of an allegation of sexual abuse, the Archdiocese of Kansas City announced Wednesday.
Bishop John Brungardt will return to ministry after a nearly 14-month voluntary leave of absence which began in February 2021, when the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said it was looking into an allegation of abuse against the bishop.
“The allegation was fully investigated by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI), following which civil authorities declined prosecution,” the Archdiocese of Kansas City said in a March 23 statement.
“Following the KBI investigation, Church authorities conducted their own separate investigation of the allegation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican has now determined that the allegation against Bishop Brungardt is not supported by the evidence and the case against him has been dismissed,” the archdiocese added.
Brungardt broke precedent last year by stepping away from ministry while he was investigated, a marked contrast to several U.S. bishops who have in recent years elected to remain in active ministry while the Vatican conducted investigations into allegations of sexual or administrative misconduct.
The Kansas City archdiocese emphasized in its March 23 statement that the bishop “has vigorously denied the allegation throughout [the investigation], and he fully cooperated with both the civil and Church investigations. Throughout this entire 14 month period, Bishop Brungardt has been entitled to the presumption of innocence under both civil and Church law.”
When the criminal investigation against Brungardt was announced in February 2021, 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, 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.
The now-resolved 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 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.”
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 step away while he was investigated 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.
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.
Vatican investigations into several other U.S. bishops remain ongoing.
In its statement Wednesday, the Kansas City archdiocese said “now that Bishop Brungardt will be taking up his duties again, he has also expressed his appreciation for the thoroughness of both investigations and his eagerness to resume public ministry, ‘serving Almighty God and the good people of the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City.’
“At the same time, Bishop Brungardt urges everyone ‘to pray for and listen to all victims of sexual abuse.’”