A group of academic researchers at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska has been working to gather information about Daniel Kenney, a popular Jesuit priest credibly accused of sexually abusing boys who attended Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha between 1965 and 1989. Kenney’s career also included multiple periods in Milwaukee.
In addition to collecting specifics about abuse by Kenney, the researchers hope to understand the decision-making by Jesuit leaders and institutional culture that set the stage for abuse.
“Our first goal is really just to understand in a deeper fashion what happened,” says Julia Feder, PhD, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, who is conducting the research with Creighton colleagues Rebecca Murray, PhD, associate professor of criminal justice, and Heather Fryer, PhD, professor of history. “Daniel Kenney’s name was released in 2018 on a list produced by the Archdiocese of Omaha and Midwest Jesuits, but of course those lists don’t provide any details about what happened.”
News stories published in 2019 by the Omaha World-Herald reported that the Midwest Jesuits said they believed Kenney abused eight minors. Four more Prep graduates contacted the paper to report he’d abused them as well.
Kenney was assigned to Marquette University High School in Milwaukee between 1957 and 1960 and the Church of the Gesu from 1990 to 1991. His next stop was five months at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, followed by 10 years in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2003, he was removed from public ministry. He returned to Milwaukee, where he continues to live in community with other Jesuits. Kenney was laicized in 2020.
Predatory Behavior – and A Glowing Reputation
Victim-survivors who have come forward to the Omaha World-Herald or the Creighton University researchers say Kenney could be relentless. “He employed some predatory behavior that isn’t always readily identified as abuse,” Feder says. He would memorize students’ class schedules, pull them out of class, or appear throughout the day to suggest one-on-one counseling sessions. He would ask students to disrobe and pose intrusive questions about their genitalia and masturbation. “One survivor that we spoke to explained that he could not get space from this priest,” Feder reports. “He was constantly right around the corner and [the student] could not get away from him, even when he wanted to.”
These behaviors clash with Kenney’s public persona. A well-respected leader in the Omaha community, he was nicknamed the “Monkey Priest” because he often carried a monkey puppet. He established a popular food drive called “Operation Others,” which continues to operate in Omaha. A skilled fundraiser, he also founded Camp Buford, a children’s wilderness camp in Wyoming, named after his puppet. The camp has been renamed since the revelations of Kenney’s abuse, but it’s still run by the Buford Foundation, Feder notes.
It’s clear that the community has wrestled with these contrasting parts of his story. In 2019, in the days before it published the articles detailing the abuse reports against Kenney, the Omaha-Herald reprinted old feature stories from years earlier describing his charitable works and ministry in Nairobi. “I could tell from the way that the newspaper reported on it that his legacy was a sensitive and complicated issue,” Feder explains.
How to Report an Experience with Daniel Kenney
There are multiple options available for making a report, depending on what feels best to you. You can start by contacting Into Account, a small nonprofit that supports survivors of abuse in Christian settings. Their staff can walk with you through various options in the reporting process, free of charge. Reach them via their online form or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Survivors can also report directly to the Creighton research team at email@example.com, or make a report to police, social services, or the state attorney general.
Understanding the Environment at Creighton Prep and Jesuit Decisions
Early in their research, Feder and her colleagues learned that Kenney was not the only adult at Creighton Prep accused of abuse. The Midwest Jesuits’ list of credibly accused priests released in 2018 showed that six other priests with abuse allegations lived in residence at the school at different times between 1979 and 1982, overlapping with Kenney, Feder says. “The more we dug into this case, the more we started to see connections between these different perpetrators,” she explains.
The researchers chose to spotlight Kenney because he is the most well-known of the priests in that group. “This is not to minimize the other perpetrators, but to provide an entry point into the broader context,” Feder says. “By studying one perpetrator, you end up studying a bunch of people.”
The researchers ultimately hope to make the information they’ve gathered available to the public, so people have a place to go for answers. But big questions remain unanswered. For example, Kenney had a known abuse allegation against him when he left Creighton Prep, but this was not made public. “After he was removed from Creighton Preparatory High School, which is a largely white, affluent high school, he was moved to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for five months and then Nairobi, Kenya for ten years,” she says, two “nonwhite and significantly less-affluent places.” It’s unclear if authorities in South Dakota or Kenya were informed about his previous behavior, she says.
But it appears that “the Midwest Jesuits on the whole made decisions to put children in danger,” she says. “That they continued to put [Kenney] in settings where he would access, not just more children, but even more vulnerable children is just really upsetting.”
This research has been funded by Fordham University, through an initiative known as Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse. Ultimately, the researchers hope “to use this case as an opportunity to theorize about what would help Jesuit institutions everywhere to take responsibility for the care of minors in a more thoughtful way,” Feder says.
Providing Support to Survivors of Kenney
While collecting information about Daniel Kenney, the researchers wanted to offer compassionate, survivor-centered support to people who experienced abuse by him or others at Creighton Prep. They also know survivors may be hesitant to contact them. “We are very aware that we work at Creighton University,” Feder says, “and we want to give survivors options for talking to people that are not affiliated with the institutions that harmed them.”
So they have partnered with Into Account, a small nonprofit that supports victim-survivors abused in Christian settings. (Many in the Awake community know Into Account for its work supporting women abused by Catholic composer David Haas.) Into Account executive director and co-founder Stephanie Krehbiel described Feder and her colleagues Murray and Fryer as “a really conscientious group of researchers when it comes to sensitivity around how their work might affect survivors.”
“They were cognizant that even if they ask survivors to come forward, survivors have a lot of good reasons for not trusting Creighton or any Jesuit institution,” Krehbiel explains.
Into Account is available to support survivors of abuse by Kenney or other clergy, particularly those who “aren’t sure what their next step should be, or who want to report to another entity but feel they need additional support to do so,” Krehbiel says. Their services are free of charge. “What we offer is a lot of experience accompanying survivors on different paths towards accountability,” she adds.
Survivors can contact Into Account through its online form or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Krehbiel stresses that Into Account will not share any information with the research team without the survivor’s permission.
Survivors who would prefer to report directly to the Creighton University research team can reach them at email@example.com.
Some of the people who have contacted the research team so far are not survivors, but alumni of the school. “They are wrestling with what it means for their high school education to be really wonderful,” Feder says. “And also for it to be clear that this priest and others abused lots of kids.”
She understands the pain felt by alumni and others in Omaha’s Catholic community. She and Murray are both Catholic and “both shaped in a significant way by Ignatian spirituality,” Feder explains. “It can be particularly disorienting to find out really alarming information about the people and the traditions that have given you so many gifts.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Correction, 8/11/22: In an earlier version of this post, we said that Daniel Kenney was removed from public ministry in 2020. In fact, he was removed from public ministry in 2003 and laicized in 2020.