by Susan Vance
September 17, 2015: James "Vann" Johnston learned deceit and subterfuge in Knoxville, Tennessee. Specifically, under the tutelage of Joseph Kurtz, then Father Johnston mastered the tools that would advance him to new heights in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
How do I know? I was there. More to the point, I interacted with Bishop Kurtz and his right hand man, Father Vann Johnston, as they led the diocese of Knoxville to re-O'Connellize the diocese of Knoxville.
Bishop Anthony O'Connell, first bishop of Knoxville, admitted molesting young boys in 2002. He had already gone to Palm Beach, Florida, when the admission went public but it reverberated throughout all of East Tennessee who had all but canonized the man while he was here. Kurtz and Johnston succeeded in duping the people in the pews of the diocese of Knoxville into believing that O'Connell did nothing wrong. They did so in many ways, not the least of which was allowing lies about the sexual abuse of O'Connell to fester and go unchallenged. (BTW, Re-O'Connellization is a term told to me by none other than one of the priests of the diocese of Knoxville).
In March 2003, the following letter was presented to Bishop Kurtz in a personal conference at which Father Vann Johnston was present. You can read the letter here. That was the last time I trusted a Kurtz and Johnston. They were a bigger part of the problem than people know. They let people continue to think that O'Connell didn't do anything but MAYBE touch and that these were "consenting adults" anyway. Would the headline "High School Principal Molests Students" gain sympathy from the people? No. But the headline "Rector has sex with seminary students" apparently was OK with the people of the diocese. Why? Because they did not know that a "rector" is a principal and that the "seminarians" were high schoolers from freshman to seniors. A minor or preparatory seminary being a high school was never clarified. So, by omission, Kurtz and Johnston gave leadership in keeping the people ignorant and satisfied that nothing had happened here. All the disingenuous propaganda of the diocese to try to recoup its reputation was masterfully done by Kurtz and Johnston with the cooperation of their priests, especially the vicar general, Father Xavier Mankel.
And that was just the start of a brilliant career for them as slick, seemingly pious clerics who would never be held accountable by the Catholics of the diocese, the people of East Tennessee or the Pope himself.
It was after that meeting, as we were walking out of the Bishop's office, that I pointed out that O'Connell's bust was on prominent display on its own table and decorated with shamrocks for St. Patrick's day. We said that it was an affront to victims. The vacant look on Johnston's face told us loud and clear that he did not care. And indeed, the bust remained on display until finally they reconstructed the wall into an "historical" place where all manner of artifacts were displayed. A clever and apparently successful plan to get their way but try to rely on "history" as an excuse to still display a pedophile's picture/bust. And they got away with it.
In short, it took us from December 2003 to February 2003 to get a building at our parish to remove O'Connell's name from the side of the building. Really? That long to "think about it." An admitted pedophile if he weren't an ordained member of the Catholic clergy would have his named yanked down in a heartbeat. But, we had to "think about it." Another stalling ploy on the part of Kurtz and Johnston which further made the people suspicious of whether or not O'Connell was guilty or not. It began to be said that "O'Connell didn't really do it, he just said he did to that he wouldn't embarrass the boys" I heard it with my own ears, folks.
And so the revision continued. It became easier for Kurtz and Johnston because they could blame "those mean women from SNAP" for all of their troubles.
At one point, I had a press conference and reported on my research. I had looked up the assignment record of the priest pedophiles from Tennessee who were in the public domain and then added the priest pedophiles provided to us by victims and came up with the conclusion that almost every county of East Tennessee had had a priest pedophile assigned there at one time or another. The press asked Father Vann Johnston, chancellor and spokesperson for the diocese, for his response. He said simply, "That's a lie."
When I confronted Johnston and asked him "Why did you call me a liar?" His response will clearly let you know why he is rising so high so fast in the Catholic hierarchy. He said, "Now, Susan. Listen carefully to what I said. I did not call you a liar. I simply said that what you said was a lie." Hair-splitting at its finest and by a professional liar himself (and I DID say liar and meant it.) It was at this point that I told Johnston that he had all the deceitful qualifications to be a bishop and assured him that he would be a bishop someday. How prophetic.
When Ann Brentwood, a renown advocate for clergy abuse victims, and I met with Kurtz and Johnston to asked one simple question, "Will you cross reference with the other two dioceses of Tennessee and find out the priest pedophiles in their records? Will you then tell the people in the parishes affected by these pedophiles that they have been endangered?" Their answer was simple, "That is not going to happen."
And it did NOT happen. The people of the diocese of Knoxville remained ignorant.
The same day that Father Vann Johnston called me a liar, I again asked him privately face-to-face to cross reference with Nashville and Memphis to let parishioners know where these pedophiles had been. He said no, of course. When pushed as to why, Johnston simply said, "Because we don't have to."
And that is true. Unless the courts demand records, the diocese can get away with their lies and re-O'Connellization of the diocese and telling the people that everything is all right when it is not. Tennessee's statutes of limitations are the problem and will remain so. SNAP has been instrumental in the person of Ann Brentwood in getting the laws changed for the better since 2006 but the cases are not, for the most part, retroactive and cannot be brought to court without some type of censure. So the lies of the Catholic church in Tennessee from its earliest days continue.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE PICTURES AND PORTRAITS STILL IN OUR CHURCHES?
At one point, I called the diocese of Palm Beach and asked if they still had pictures of Bishop Anthony O'Connell on the walls of their churches and schools. The person on the other end said, "Why would we?"
Why would we, indeed. But we do in East Tennessee. It's all part of the squishy feeling that Kurtz and Johnston allowed to permeate the diocese, the parishes and the schools. First St. Mary's Oak Ridge was led kicking and screaming to take down O'Connell's name from the Family Life Center. Then we requested that Knoxville Catholic High School take down its picture of O'Connell. Nope, would not happen. History, don't 'cha know. The picture did come down for the 75th anniversary of Knox Catholic (I guess they were afraid it might offend donors at that occasion) but it apparently has since been restored somewhere in the school. And unless an alumna like myself goes over there and pitches a fit, they don't understand that it is wrong . . . and they still would not take it down for that (unless I were rich and withheld a huge check from them. . . then they would listen.)
Then Mike Wegs visited Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga and asked the principal to remove the picture of O'Connell from their front hall. No, would not do it. Not even at the request of a victim of O'Connell. Someone needs to ask Notre Dame if they still have that picture there. My guess, is yes but I hope I am wrong.
When Kurtz and Johnston left the diocese for their new high powered jobs as Archbishop and Bishop, respectively, they did not bother to inform Bishop Richard Stika about the pedophiles who had abused in the diocese. Bishop Richard Stika is now the 3rd bishop of Knoxville. As Kurtz's successor, one would think he would know who had abused here, but no. No information. No names. And as it turns out, no interest on the part of Stika to know or be accountable. No surprise there.
So what does James "Vann" Johnston bring to Kansas City. Just what they apparently need. Someone who is a cover-up artist. Someone who is suave and gets away with his "I just said you lied. I didn't say you were a liar" expertise. A master of parsing words. A master at mental reservation. He is a master at keeping victims in the background. And maybe most important for Kansas City, he is a master at revising the past to make it look good. Johnston will take all of your problems and rewrite history. After all, if you can re-O'Connellize the diocese of Knoxville, you can do anything.
Bishop sexually molests and admits it. NO problem. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Bishop James "Vann" Johnston to the rescue.