It will take a new leader to repair Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
Criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have been a long time coming. Evidence of what Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called “institutional failure” to protect children from abusive priests has been accumulating for years.
Yet while not surprising, Choi’s announcement Friday that he has charged the archdiocese with six gross misdemeanor counts in connection with its oversight of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer is stunning for its courage. By asserting the bedrock principle of American justice that no one is above the law, Choi is proposing to hold one of St. Paul’s most powerful institutions to account.
Wehmeyer is now in prison after being convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing two boys whose mother worked with him at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul. Choi’s related charges against the archdiocese spring from an investigation that took 20 months — a sign of painstaking prosecutorial diligence.
“This case is not about religion,” St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said Friday. “It’s about allegations of misconduct and crimes that were committed.”
That may be true in a legal sense. But intrinsically, the archdiocese is “about religion.” That is what makes the crimes of which it is accused so repulsive, yet the prosecution of those crimes so risky. If, as accused, the archdiocese systemically looked the other way as Wehmeyer manipulated the faith of children and their families in order to prey upon them, it has betrayed the trust not only of the Roman Catholic faithful, but also the entire community. On the other hand, if the prosecutor overreaches, the damage he can inflict will be widely felt.
Choi’s accusations point to the entire archdiocese, not a few individuals. That sets this case apart from clergy abuse prosecutions elsewhere in the country. It’s in keeping with our view that systemic change is needed at the archdiocese, both to protect children from predatory priests and to restore the community’s trust in an institution that does so much good work in education, health care and caring for the poor.
That change must begin at the top. Archbishop John Nienstedt should go. The Star Tribune Editorial Board concluded 11 months ago that Nienstedt is too much associated with the mistakes of the past to credibly function as an agent of change. The fact that the Wehmeyer case, at the center of Choi’s charges, occurred on his watch is bound to further erode his capacity to engineer reform and rally support.
The charges Choi filed Friday were a legal and cultural bombshell in St. Paul. We hope their reverberations were felt as far away as Rome. Pope Francis is a leader who has displayed a keen sense of what reform requires. We hope he soon sees that new leadership is needed in Minneapolis and St. Paul to hasten the day when this archdiocese can again be “about religion” — and not an alleged criminal coverup — in the community’s eyes.