Island police examine priest’s conduct: Kemp accused but not charged, on leave

Parishioners at St. Monica Catholic Church of Mercer Island learned at Mass this past weekend that their pastor of five years, The Rev. Dennis Kemp, has been under investigation for inappropriate conduct with a minor. The investigation by Mercer Island police detectives was completed on July 24 after allegations were filed earlier in July on behalf of a 12-year-old boy and his family. Kemp is now on paid administrative leave while the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle investigates further.

The highest official in the Catholic Church of Western Washington, Archbishop Alex J. Brunett, who in turn with Aux. Bishop Joe Tyson and other church officials, attended each Mass at St. Monica on Saturday and Sunday to deliver the news. At the Sunday evening Mass, the announcement read by Bishop Tyson was greeted with gasps of disbelief and some tears.

The Archdiocese waited to release the information to the public until after St. Monica parishioners had been informed.

“The reaction was mixed,” said Larry McDonald, parish administrator. “By and large they were happy the archbishop came to tell the story. As you might expect, there was some sadness and sorrow. But this parish knows it’s all about Jesus Christ and with him, we’ll get through it.”

The Archdiocese of Seattle, which oversees the Catholic Church in Western Washington, received the allegations through channels it has set up specifically for such complaints, said Greg Magnoni. The Archdiocese then forwarded the information to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

The priest was investigated regarding incidents of physical contact with the boy that occurred over the past six months, said Mercer Island Police Commander Leslie Burns. The contact had occurred at the church.

The investigation was swift.

After the complaint was made in early July through the Archdiocese, King County prosecutors called Mercer Island police on July 12. They began investigating immediately, Burns said. Officers interviewed the boy and his family more than once. At least one of the interviews was conducted by a special investigator who works with children on these cases, she said. Kemp was also interviewed extensively by Island police.

The MIPD forwarded its findings to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, Burns said. The Prosecutor’s Office however, is not filing charges as the behavior did not meet the standard of a criminal act.

“The behavior was deemed inappropriate, but did not reach the bar for a criminal offense,” said Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes.

Even though no criminal act is believed to have occurred, the Archdiocese acted to place the priest on leave. Kemp left the parish voluntarily on Thursday, July 26.

According to Magnoni, the Archdiocese will now conduct its own investigation into the complaint to see if the charges are credible and to determine if Kemp has violated church law and should be allowed to continue as an active minister.

“The church has a different set of concerns than what the prosecutor looks for,” he explained. “The process is to determine if a person is qualified to be a minister in the Archdiocese.”

Burns said that Island police have not investigated any other complaints regarding Kemp nor was it informed about any other past issues regarding the priest in this case.

“We have no indication that this has been going on with any other families here on Mercer Island,” Burns said.

Magnoni said this was the first case the Archdiocese has had in regarding improper behavior for a long time. The Archdiocese had recently completed investigations of past abuse by 13 other priests. With procedures now in place they could act quickly, he explained.

McDonald agreed.

“From the parish’s point of view, the Archdiocese [of Seattle] is handling this thing perfectly according to their policies and the policies of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. You can be confident that the Archdiocese isn’t covering this up, and through this process, justice and truth will be arrived at for all involved,” he said.

“Again, I can say that our parish was very appreciative that the bishops came [to Mass on Sunday],” McDonald added. “The bishops will be here as much as they can throughout the month of August. We’re grateful for their care and consideration.”

Kemp joined St. Monica parish in July 2002, succeeding The Rev. John Bowman who had been with the parish for 12 years. Kemp had been posted to St. Monica for three years when he was first ordained a priest in 1973.

Since that time Kemp has been assigned to two other parishes and was an administrator and pastor at Kennedy High School from 1978 until 1994. It is standard procedure for Catholic clergy to be assigned to different posts over their time as active priests.

No other complaints against the priest have been made to the Archdiocese, according to Magnoni.

Kemp grew up in Seattle and Burien, and graduated from O’Dea High School before he attended the seminary for his university and theological studies.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle has a detailed policy posted on its Web site regarding allegations of and prevention for sexual abuse. It has toll-free numbers and e-mail addresses for individuals to report suspected abuse. It also outlines ways that the church tries to protect both victims and the accused. It describes how the church screens those in or preparing for ministry, methods to protect and heal the families and victims, and their commitment to ensure due process for the accused. Together the clergy, community members and law enforcement oversee the policy and its implementation. The policies are those decided by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in Dallas of 2002, put in place in response to the crisis of abuse in the church in the United States.

St. Monica was established in 1958 and has more than 1,300 households. The church is now holding Mass and other liturgies in the school gymnasium as the floor in the sanctuary of the church is being redone.

In a story that appeared in the Reporter in December 2002, Kemp reflected on what the growing sex abuse scandals meant to the church at that time.

“A priest holds such a position of trust, it’s hard to understand how anybody could abuse that privilege,” he told the Reporter. And while he affirmed that the number of priests involved in the scandals was small, “one case is too many,” he said.

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