ST. MARYS — For four decades, the Society of St. Pius X has made its home in this northeast Kansas town, its followers coming from across the country to raise their children according to traditional Catholic values.
Now, with attendance at Latin Mass topping 4,000, plans are underway for the breakaway Catholic society to build a $30 million church high on its campus overlooking St. Marys. The Immaculata, the SSPX says, will become the biggest traditional Catholic church in the world.
But something else is underway that threatens to overshadow the jubilation over a new house of worship with enough room to accommodate the ever-expanding flock: A criminal investigation by the state’s top law enforcement agency into allegations of priest sexual abuse.
In February 2019, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced that it was looking into reports of sexual abuse by clergy in the state’s four Roman Catholic dioceses, with headquarters in Wichita, Salina, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kansas. That investigation has since expanded.
“The investigation includes allegations against clergy from all four Catholic dioceses in the state, and the Society of Saint Pius X,” said KBI spokeswoman Melissa Underwood in an email to The Star. She said the investigation is ongoing and is expected to be lengthy.
“As of February 1 (2020), we have had 186 reports of abuse and opened 112 investigations,” Underwood said. She did not provide a breakdown of how many cases involved the SSPX.
The Star began looking into the matter earlier this year when a woman with relatives in St. Marys told the newspaper that the KBI was investigating SSPX. Since then, several people have told The Star that they have contacted the KBI to report sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior by SSPX priests and employees as well as a cover-up by the leaders. Others said agents working on the investigation have contacted them in recent months.
“There’s no benefit of the doubt anymore. This is corruption,” said Jassy Jacas, a St. Marys woman who recently posted details on her Facebook page of what she said was inappropriate behavior by an SSPX priest she had gone to for counseling.
Jacas said she reported her concerns all the way up the SSPX leadership chain starting in 2018 and was assured that action had been taken. But she said she later learned that no investigation was ever conducted and that the priest was serving as principal of an SSPX school in Florida.
“I had never prayed so much in my life,” she said of her decision to go public. “But I knew it was the right thing to do.” Even so, she said, “I was still very heartbroken, and it wasn’t until I heard many, many stories from victims that I started getting on the angry side.”
Jacas said the KBI is looking into allegations against multiple SSPX priests.
“At the time I met them, they had said eight different (SSPX) priests with incidents that happened in Kansas,” she said.
Though some cases are decades old, others, like Jacas’, involve alleged incidents that occurred in recent years.
Last year, an SSPX parishioner who was employed by the organization was convicted of serious sex crimes involving his own children. A former parishioner said he reported the sexual abuse to three SSPX priests eight years ago, but none did anything about it.
And in 2016, allegations of inappropriate contact with teenage male boarding students surfaced against a priest stationed at St. Mary’s Academy, the SSPX school in St. Marys. The Society said it turned the information over to law enforcement and no charges were filed, but SSPX restricted the priest from having any parish role, especially with minors.
In a statement sent to The Star, the Society of St. Pius X acknowledged that some priests may have committed misdeeds but denied that it covered up any sexual abuse.
“We remain ready to show that, despite possible errors of judgment and some blunders, which we can only regret, our first concern is for the victims, and we take the smallest credible allegation seriously,” said the May 8 statement issued by the SSPX headquarters in Switzerland.
“That said, it is an insult to impute to us the deliberate intention to cover up morally reprehensible acts, just as it is shameful for us if one of our members or employees betrays the trust of the faithful and sullies the priesthood and our mission of sanctifying souls.”
The Society said it was committed to protecting children and all vulnerable people.
“The SSPX recognizes that all persons who have suffered sexual abuse must be heard and helped, and that the wrong that has been done to them must be repaired in some way,” it said. “The abusers must be held responsible before the civil authorities; if they are members of the clergy, they must give an account of their acts before a Church tribunal, in keeping with canon law.”
The alleged victims say the statement doesn’t go far enough to address the problem. Several first spoke out in an investigation published April 22 by Church Militant, an ultraconservative Catholic news and opinion website. The investigation found what it described as widespread sexual abuse and cover-up in the Society of St. Pius X.
The report initially elicited a scathing response from the SSPX, which said the articles “mix and match real facts with false or unbelievable accusations in an abhorrent manner.”
But the SSPX quickly followed up with an April 24 statement saying it was “committed to full transparency regarding recent allegations involving its current and former clergy, religious and employees.” It added that it had been in close contact with the Pottawatomie County Attorney and the KBI — even naming the agent it was working with — and provided both of their phone numbers for people to contact with “any relevant information concerning ongoing or future investigations.”
The SSPX also announced that it was forming a permanent independent review board to investigate sex abuse allegations.
Pottawatomie County Attorney Sherri Schuck said the SSPX had provided documents to the KBI.
“They are working with my office and the KBI to produce the requested documents, and I anticipate they will continue to work with us during the course of the investigation,” she said in an email to The Star.
Kurt Chione, who taught at St. Mary’s Academy from 1988 to 1990, said he told the KBI that he was fired after reporting to the rector that one of his students revealed he was being sexually abused by a priest. The former student later took his life.
“I want justice for all the victims,” Chione said. “I want them to be compensated properly, whether monetarily or with counseling. And I want to see actual reform so this never happens again.”
Rocky relationship with Rome
St. Marys sits near the banks of the Kansas River, a tranquil setting about 90 miles west of Kansas City. Farmland and pastures dot the surrounding countryside, and the community of about 2,600 — the majority who are SSPX followers — has a feel of stepping back several decades in time.
The town gets its name from the St. Mary’s Catholic Mission, founded by the Jesuits in 1848 for the Potawatomi Indians, the first to settle in the area after being relocated from Indiana and Michigan by the federal government. During the gold rush, the mission was a stopping point along the Oregon Trail for travelers heading to California to seek their fortune. In 1869, the grounds became St. Mary’s College.
After the college closed in 1931, it became a Jesuit seminary until 1967. The Society of St. Pius X bought the property in 1978 and established St. Mary’s Academy and College, which comprises a K-12 school and a two-year college. (The town has no apostrophe in its name, but the academy and college use the possessive form.)
Today, the SSPX has chapels around the world, with half a million followers served by more than 600 priests, according to its website. The U.S. district headquarters is in Platte City.
The SSPX was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 in response to the liberalizing reforms implemented by the Second Vatican Council, which it described as “disastrous changes” in the Catholic Church. Among the reforms: an authorization to use vernacular language while celebrating Mass. Many Catholics still prefer the traditional Latin liturgy, which the SSPX embraces.
The Society’s relationship with Rome became increasingly strained in 1988, when Lefebvre and another bishop consecrated four bishops without Vatican permission. The action resulted in the excommunication of those involved. Lefebvre died in 1991, and Pope Benedict XVI lifted the other bishops’ excommunications in 2009.
In late 2015, Pope Francis announced that Catholics would be able to receive absolution from SSPX priests during the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. Francis later extended the ability indefinitely, and in 2017 gave diocesan bishops the authority to grant SSPX priests the ability to celebrate marriages as well.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said they have no oversight over the Society of St. Pius X.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said that other than granting canonical faculties to witness marriages that take place at the SSPX Annunciation Chapel in St. Marys, it has no formal relationship with the SSPX.
The traditional Latin Mass has been experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years. St. Marys was featured in an article in the January/February edition of The Atlantic that described how the town was growing as more conservative families were settling there to live and worship among like-minded people.
The SSPX also found itself in the news in 2004 when the academy refused to play a football game against a school that had a girl on the team. And four years later, the school made national headlines after it forfeited a boys’ basketball game because one of the referees was a woman.
But the church continues to grow and last year, the SSPX revealed details of its plans to build the Immaculata, a 1,500-seat Romanesque church that will replace the original structure that burned down 42 years ago.
“The majesty of the church will be evident to all,” it said, “with two bell towers reaching 111 feet in the air, a 12-sided cupola (representing the 12 stars that crown Mary) on which will rise a statue of Our Lady to become the highest point of campus, as well as the town.”
‘Victims are coming forward’
Jassy Jacas moved to St. Marys from southern California when she was in the 9th grade, sent there by her parents to attend St. Mary’s Academy. She lived in the boarding school on campus until the rest of the family moved to town at the end of the school year.
For years, she had struggled with personal issues stemming from sexual abuse when she was a child. Finally, at the end of 2013, the 22-year-old St. Mary’s Academy and College graduate sought counseling from an SSPX priest during confession.
“I just started opening up and crying,” she told The Star. He told her he could help and said she should call him “so we can find a spiritual direction.”
About a week later, Jacas said, they talked on the phone. The priest instructed her to email him some information about her background. After that, she said, they met in an office on St. Mary’s property.
“He started asking me questions about what I eat, what I listen to, then he asked me, ‘When you see a man walking down the street, do you just want to jump on top of him and take him to bed with you?’”
Then, she said, he asked if she was a virgin. She said yes.
“And he said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Can you really be sure?’ And I said, ‘Father, I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ And he said, ‘Well, if he put his fingers inside of you, you’re not a virgin.’”
Before she left, Jacas said, the priest told her to email him the details of the sexual abuse.
“And he said, ‘I want you to include in detail every sexual temptation, action, thoughts you’ve had.’ Then I really gave him a look and he says, ‘Listen, not so I can see your sins, it’s just because you don’t know what sin is, and I’m going to help you to know what sin is.’”
After she did what he asked, Jacas said the priest emailed her back and said he was going to France to visit his mother but that when he returned, “we will work on everything.” That was the last she ever heard from him.
Several years later, Jacas started seeing a Catholic therapist. When she told him about her experience with the priest, she said she learned that the therapist was counseling another woman who’d had a troubling experience with the same priest.
Around June 2018, Jacas said she met with a priest at St. Mary’s who told her there were already restrictions placed on the priest she’d dealt with “due to certain imprudence with a woman that is nothing near what you just told me.”
He told her there would likely be an investigation and that he would report her concerns to the Rev. Jurgen Wegner, the SSPX’s U.S.A. District Superior. But then she heard the priest was assisting with church camps. And then he came to St. Mary’s to lead a procession.
“Then all of a sudden, I hear that he’s the principal and teacher at a school in Florida,” she said. “And my conscience can’t put it aside any longer.”
Jacas eventually met with Wegner in Platte City and asked if he’d conducted an investigation. He said no. But he told her the priest was no longer allowed to hear women’s confessions or provide spiritual direction to women and was never alone around children.
A couple of weeks later, Jacas visited the chapel at St. Mary’s. In the vestibule, she said, she saw the priest’s picture on a poster that said he was going on a pilgrimage to France. “And then I knew there was no way the restrictions were that severe.”
Jacas said another priest then told her, “Since the event took place 6 years ago, maybe everything should be forgotten now? I know it will always bring back unpleasant memories, but the pain can be offered to God.”
Fed up, Jacas emailed the Rev. Davide Pagliarani, the SSPX Superior General. She said his assistant responded on Jan. 16, saying that Pagliarani “measures your sorrow” but that the decision was up to Wegner.
The next day, Jacas said, she talked to the head of the priory where the priest lived in Florida. She said that after apologizing and telling her there should have been an investigation, his demeanor changed and he added: “If you go public, you’ll be ruining so many people’s souls, so many lives.”
On Jan. 19, Jacas posted her story on her Facebook page.
After her post, Jacas learned about the KBI investigation. She met with an agent, she said, and they remain in communication.
“I think there’s already so much good that has come from this,” she said. “So many good conversations are happening. People are talking about sexual abuse, manipulation, appropriate boundaries with priests.
“All of those things are going to prevent abuse. And maybe they can get justice.”
Kurt Chione could tell something was deeply troubling Michael Gonzalez.
The teen had been struggling in school that spring of 1990 and didn’t seem to care about much of anything, his former high school teacher told The Star in a recent interview.
“He was misbehaving, acting out in class. I’d catch him crying after school and shivering outside,” Chione said. “So I took him under my wing. I said, ‘What’s the matter, Michael? You can talk to me.’ At first, he was a little scared. And I said, ‘I need to ask you something. Did somebody do something bad to you?’
“Finally, he just said, ‘He hurt me. He hurt me.’ I said, ‘Who hurt you?’ He said, ‘One of the priests.’ But he wouldn’t tell me which one.”
Chione said he immediately reported Michael’s allegations to two priests at St. Mary’s Academy. One was the rector, the Rev. Ramon Angles.
“They got angry,” Chione said. “They told me, ‘You’re an idiot for getting involved. You listen to him, you’re crazy.’”
The next day, Chione said, he went to the police.
“They wouldn’t even do a report. He said, ‘You’re not the victim; there’s nothing I can do.’”
Soon after that, Chione said, he received notice that his teaching contract had been rescinded.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I had already signed a contract for the next year.”
Michael’s family saw a noticeable change in him around the end of his 8th grade year, his oldest sister told The Star in a recent interview.
“I knew something had to be wrong with him,” said Theresa Gonzalez Goodman, who of the 15 siblings was closest to Michael. “He didn’t even show up for his 8th grade graduation. We all showed up, and he was nowhere to be found.”
After that, she said, “his whole demeanor changed.”
“It was like night and day, from somebody who was cheerful and laughing to somber and closed down.”
Michael dropped out of school in the 9th grade, she said, “and from then on it was a downward spiral.”
“He just one day was crying to me about everything that he’d done wrong, and then he told me about what had been done to him,” Goodman said. “It was little by little, first the spiritual abuse, and then more cruel and dark as it went on.”
This time, Michael named his alleged abuser. Father Angles.
“People were terrified of him,” Goodman said. “That’s why Michael never came forward.”
Goodman said she believes Angles bought their parents’ silence.
“We owed the Academy a lot of money,” she said, putting the figure at about $20,000. “And I saw a letter by Father Angles that said your loan is forgiven by the Academy as long as you don’t say anything bad or negative about the SSPX.”
Sarah Gonzalez, the fourth-oldest sibling, said Michael also confided in her.
“He was just very, very wounded,” she said. “I would talk him down from the ledge a lot. He didn’t have any support when he was trying to come forward.”
Michael continued to struggle over the next several years, his sisters said. And on Feb. 18, 2000, he died in Topeka of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 25.
Sarah Gonzalez said Michael’s girlfriend was talking to him when he took his life.
“She told me that he was on the phone with her and he was just lamenting, and he stuck the gun in his mouth and he pulled the trigger,” she said.
Their dad built a coffin for Michael out of particle board, Sarah Gonzalez said.
“I worked at a flower shop in Topeka, and it was just after Valentine’s Day and there were all these red roses left over, and my employer made this huge casket spray,” she said. “And Theresa and his girlfriend and I, we covered that disgusting particle box with all those red roses.”
All three sisters said they have talked to the KBI, along with their mother and a brother.
Goodman said Michael had written “a lot of letters about what had happened” and that “he named Angles several times.” But the family’s house in St. Marys burned down a few years after Michael’s death, she said, and everything in it was destroyed.
“I’m hoping more people will come forward,” Goodman said. “There has to be transparency. It doesn’t matter if it’s a corporate model or a church model, we can’t hide the truth. We all have to be accountable.”
Michael’s younger sister, Maggie Gonzalez, said she’s been criticized for recently speaking out.
“People need to know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t want any more children or anybody else to experience any type of abuse.”
Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney representing Angles, said the priest “never abused Michael Gonzalez in any way, or anyone else for that matter.”
“He denies and rejects most emphatically and unequivocally any allegation accusing him of indecent behavior ever,” he said.
Angles arrived in St. Marys on Feb. 12, 1989, Irigonegaray said, and took over as rector on July 1 of that year.
“Father Angles had no reason or opportunity whatsoever to converse or meet with the students in private,” he said. “He did not even have an office, nor did he use his office space until the summer of 1989.”
The allegation about Angles forgiving the family’s debt to the academy under the condition of keeping silent “is as false as it is absurd,” Irigonegaray said.
Chione’s story about reporting Michael Gonzalez’ abuse to Angles and police is “absolutely false,” Irigonegaray said.
“He never went to Father Angles with that information, nor was he fired two weeks later,” he said. “Had Mr. Chione gone to the authorities, father Angles is convinced that in the exercise of their responsibilities, they would have questioned him.”
Irigonegaray said Chione was not rehired for the 1990-1991 school year because his performance as organist, choirmaster and music teacher was unsatisfactory.
Angles left St. Marys in 2003, Irigonegaray said. He is still with the Society of St. Pius X, he said, and is the author of its document on policies, procedures and protocols for responding to the sexual abuse of minors.
A former SSPX priest told The Star he had a run-in with Angles in the early 1990s when he reported that a teacher at St. Mary’s Academy had acted inappropriately toward a teenage male student.
The Rev. John Rizzo, at the time an SSPX priest in Post Falls, Idaho, said the boy’s parents showed him a letter their son, who was attending St. Mary’s Academy, had received from the teacher.
“The letter said how he loved being around him, how handsome you are, this type of thing,” Rizzo told The Star in a phone call from Australia, where he is now serving as a diocesan priest. “Certainly not a letter that a teacher would write to a student. Very inappropriate.”
Rizzo said he called Angles and read the letter to him.
“He said, ‘I’m terribly sorry about this, Father Rizzo. I will take care of this.’ I said, ‘I hope so Father.’”
But hours later, Rizzo said, he received an irate fax from Angles, written in Latin.
“It said, ‘How dare you, you insulted me. I know how to run my school.’”
Irigonegaray said Angles denied that those events occurred.
But Rizzo said that after receiving the fax, he got a call from the U.S. District Superior in Kansas City, who told Rizzo he was sending him to London because he had upset Angles.
After a few months in London, Rizzo returned to the U.S., left the SSPX in 1993 and joined the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a community of Catholic priests.
“They were just getting more and more cultish, just very controlling over their faithful,” Rizzo said. “And I thought, ‘I can’t put up with this anymore.’”
He rented a community room at a bank in St. Marys, where he said Mass for local Catholics who weren’t part of the SSPX, working in unison with the local parish priest. That didn’t sit well with the SSPX, he said, and things became so tense that one Saturday evening the sheriff stopped by the bank.
“He said, ‘Look, father, it’s my understanding that there’s a group of men from St. Mary’s that have a stronger firepower than we do, and they could be out looking for you, so why don’t you leave? And wear a bulletproof vest.’”
The next morning, Rizzo said, when he arrived for Mass, the locks on the bank door had been filled with glue. Across the street stood a group of men, laughing because he couldn’t get in.
After that, the bank said he could not come back for fear of more vandalism. So Rizzo rented a storefront on Main Street and continued saying Mass. One night, someone shot at Rizzo’s house.
“There were four gunshots all together,” Rizzo said. “One made a bullet hole through the window and entered the pillow of the guest room. And then three other bullets entered the walls of the house. For a while after that, I slept in the basement.”
‘It should have ended a long time ago’
In 2012, Kyle White and his fiancée were going through counseling with the Rev. Todd Angele and needed guidance on a critical issue.
His fiancée’s father had sexually abused her from the ages of 8 to 15.
“She told Father Angele what her father had done to her, and he told me not to turn in Peter Palmeri to the police,” White told The Star. “He told me I would ruin Palmeri’s so-called good name.”
White said Angele told him it would be a mortal sin to report Palmeri.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I really believed he would say to turn him in and that would help her in her decision, because she was struggling with it. But he ended up shutting us down.”
A few weeks later, White said, he got a call from another SSPX priest, who said he wanted to talk. This time, White’s dad accompanied him to the meeting. Again, he was told not to report Palmeri to authorities, White said.
White said a friend then arranged a secret meeting with a third SSPX priest.
“We ended up meeting in the choir loft at night,” White said. “He said he was technically not supposed to be helping me with this, but he agreed that Palmeri needed to be turned in. I felt like he was definitely in my corner. But he didn’t do anything about it, either.”
So White went to the St. Marys police.
“I brought text messages and a letter and they said that what I had was hearsay and that basically, anyone could say the same thing about me,” he said. “And that was it.”
The couple ended up breaking off the relationship, White said: “This kind of destroyed us, for sure.”
But last year, some of Palmeri’s children came forward, he said, fearing that their younger sisters were being sexually abused.
Palmeri was arrested in July in connection with numerous sex crimes. He pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced in February to 10 years in prison.
White said Palmeri and Angele were friends who attended St. Mary’s Academy together, and Palmeri had a maintenance job at the school and the church.
In an April 24 statement on its website, the SSPX said that Angele “vehemently denies the reported allegations of Mr. Kyle White concerning his supposed advice not to report abuse.”
White said he talked to a KBI agent last year. Many SSPX followers have accused him of trying to destroy the Society, he said.
“That’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s about getting rid of these predators from the church and to stop them from harming people.
“This is something that should not be tolerated.”