Twin Cities archdiocese charged with covering up clergy abuse
High-ranking church officials downplayed or ignored reports of a predatory priest and protected clergy at the expense of children, leading to the abuse of at least three young victims, according to criminal charges filed Friday against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The six gross misdemeanor counts are the result of a 20-month investigation, which continues, according to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. They relate to how archdiocesan officials handled the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who was convicted in 2013 of molesting boys but had been flagged for inappropriate behavior years earlier.
Wehmeyer had been in an archdiocesan monitoring program for wayward priests, but the program “was in fact a sham” and Wehmeyer continued to prey on children, Choi said at a noon news conference in St. Paul, adding that the program’s codes and policies were “neither followed nor enforced.”
“The facts we have gathered cannot be ignored … and are frankly appalling,” Choi added.
During a later news conference outside the archdiocesan offices in St. Paul, a pair of church officials pledged to cooperate with the investigation.
“I want to state clearly that we deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer,” Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said. “We will continue to cooperate with the Ramsey County attorney’s office because we all share the same goal. That is the protection of children and the safe environment of our churches.”
The 43-page criminal complaint alleges that archdiocesan officials — including Archbishop John Nienstedt, former Archbishop Harry Flynn and former Vicar General Kevin McDonough — ignored complaints and reports about Wehmeyer’s behavior, which included sexual compulsions and alcohol abuse, for years before he was arrested and charged with a crime.
“When viewed in totality, these facts in the complaint result in criminal conduct by the archdiocese,” Choi said.
For now, only the archdiocesan corporation has been charged, which means no individual would be held accountable and the archdiocese would likely face a fine if convicted, Choi said.
The criminal charges include three counts of contributing to the need for protection of minors and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a child.
The charges center on Wehmeyer’s case because the acts were recent and within the statute of limitations, Choi said.
In addition to criminal charges, the county attorney’s office filed a civil petition against the archdiocese “intended to seek legal remedies to prevent the archdiocese from allowing this behavior (from) ever happening again,” according to a statement.
Paul lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who has filed three civil cases against the archdiocese representing victims of Wehmeyer, called the criminal charges “a giant step forward in holding the top officials criminally accountable for their choices. It’s enormously significant, because it names the corporation, and the top officials in it who made choices to protect themselves (and others).”
Anderson, who in the past has been openly critical of the Ramsey County attorney’s office, said, “This shows they have made a serious effort to review (the materials we gave them) and to conduct a rigorous investigation. It just took them time, and today is the time.
“I think it is a brighter day, and a better one.”
Frank Meuers, a leader of the Minnesota Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, spoke to reporters Friday afternoon outside the Cathedral of St. Paul as parishioners trickled in for confession.
“My reaction today is, ‘Great, it’s high time,’ ” Meuers said. “Thank God John Choi has seen fit to at least make some charges. Now, we’d love to see this stuff come to trial. … I would like to see these guys actually come to a court and answer for what they have done.”
The national office of SNAP has called for the seizure of church officials’ passports to keep them from traveling to Rome and taking shelter from prosecution at the Vatican.
The civil cases filed by Wehmeyer’s accusers were put on hold by court order when the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in January.
This is the first time an archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church has been criminally charged in the United States in more than a decade — though some top officials have been charged as individuals in recent years.
Monsignor William Lynn, the secretary for clergy in Philadelphia, was convicted of child endangerment charges in 2012. The conviction, overturned by an appeals court a year later, was reinstated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in April.
In 2012, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was found guilty of failing to report an accusation of child abuse, for waiting months to tell police about explicit images of children discovered on the computer of one of his priests. A judge dismissed charges against the diocese.
In 2003, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati pleaded no contest for failing to report sexually abusive priests to police and was fined $10,000. It was the first time an archdiocese was found guilty of charges relating to sexual abuse cases.
In 2002, the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., avoided criminal charges and agreed to a settlement in which it agreed to protect children from abuse in the future. That same year, in exchange for avoiding criminal charges, a bishop in Phoenix admitted he had concealed child sex abuse and agreed to relinquish oversight of sex abuse cases.
Charles Reid, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas who specializes in canon and civil law, called the factual foundation of the Ramsey County criminal complaint “pretty detailed,” and added, “It looks pretty familiar to me. … This is nothing we don’t already know based on documents (plaintiffs’ attorney) Anderson released.”
Still, Reid said that with tens of thousands of pages of documents referenced, it appeared that the county attorney’s office had done its own “thorough” investigation.
“Looking at this, I ask myself, ‘Will there be additional charges?’ “
Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese’s former chancellor for canonical affairs, said the charges filed Friday are the result she has “hoped for and feared” since she acted as a whistle-blower in June 2012 and went to the authorities to expose what she saw as widespread cover-up in the archdiocese.
She said Choi’s “description of what is contained in the complaints as ‘appalling’ is the best way to describe it.”
The complaint notes that in 2009, Haselberger warned Nienstedt not to appoint Wehmeyer as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and St. Thomas the Apostle Church in St. Paul. She suggested the archbishop review Wehmeyer’s file, including a report from St. Luke’s Institute, a treatment center for clergy with sexual and psychological disorders where Wehmeyer was evaluated briefly in 2004, and reports documenting Wehmeyer’s “cruising” incidents.
Nienstedt told Wehmeyer he hadn’t reviewed his file, the complaint said. He then appointed Wehmeyer as pastor.
“One of the possible outcomes of a conviction would be there would be some kind of supervision imposed on the archdiocese for an extended period of time … I think everyone who is concerned about the safety of children and vulnerable people can only see that as a win,” Haselberger said.
In the wake of Haselberger’s move as a whistle-blower, the Minnesota Legislature in May 2013 passed the Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for victims to file claims over abuse that occurred many years ago.
Since the law took effect, 25 lawsuits have been filed; two have been settled.
The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, essentially halting existing lawsuits.
Choi and St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith on Friday urged any other victims or anyone with information to come forward.
Timothy O’Malley, director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the archdiocese, thanked the victims who have stepped forward and urged anyone else with information about clergy abuse to contact St. Paul police.
“The more complete the information available, the more likely justice will be served,” O’Malley said at the news conference held by the archdiocese.
Wehmeyer, 50, is serving a five-year prison term for molesting two brothers from the Parish of the Blessed Sacrament on St. Paul’s East Side while he was pastor there in 2010. He also was convicted of possessing child pornography.
He was charged in November in Chippewa County, Wis., with the sexual assault of a teenage boy who passed out after drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana in 2011. That case is pending.
The Vatican defrocked Wehmeyer in March, after a request from the archdiocese.
Jaime DeLage contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.