Twin Cities archdiocese charged with child endangerment.
On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”
In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”
In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.
The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”
The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”
That totality amounts to a catalogue of errors. From the beginning of Wehmeyer’s career as a priest, the archdiocese “had ample warning and learned repeatedly that Wehmeyer presented a risk of harm,” according to the Ramsey County civil petition. Yet at almost every turn, church leaders inadequately responded—or turned a blind eye. For example, investigators found that when Wehmeyer himself asked Nienstedt whether he was fully aware of his past—a past that included substance abuse and incidents of sexual misconduct—the archbishop said that he didn’t need “to look into that stuff.” (The archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment on the exchange.)
Wehmeyer never looked like an ideal candidate for the priesthood. When he was admitted to seminary in 1997, church officials were aware that he had a history of alcohol and substance abuse, and that he was on anti-depression medication. They knew he had been promiscuous with women and men (he was in his early thirties when he entered seminary). Prior to beginning his training for the priesthood, Wehmeyer had been meeting with Flynn, then archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, every six weeks for a year (an unusual amount of attention for a bishop to give to someone who wasn’t yet in seminary). In January 1996, Flynn instructed seminary officials to accept Wehmeyer as a candidate for the priesthood. A co-director of vocations at the time was not convinced that Wehmeyer would be a good priest: “It may be that he is setting himself up for failure by pursuing a vocation for which he will never be very effective and whose burdens he simply will not be able to carry,” he wrote.
Throughout Wehmeyer’s formation, his instructors repeatedly expressed misgivings about his fitness for the priesthood. They found that he struggled in social settings, that he expressed his frustration in troubling ways, and that he seemed “needy,” according to the criminal complaint. An evaluation sent to Flynn after Wehmeyer’s third year reported that two teachers, two pastors, and a staff member had serious reservations about him. When asked why he wanted to be a priest, Wehmeyer could not say.
Wehmeyer was ordained in May 2001. Seminary officials warned Flynn that Wehmeyer might not be able to handle a large parish, and would require mentoring and supervision from another priest. Flynn made him an associate pastor of St. Joseph’s in West St. Paul, whose pastor was then-Fr. Lee Piché (now an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis). It was the first time Piché had ever mentored or supervised an associate pastor, according to the criminal complaint.
In January 2004, less than three years after his first parish assignment, Wehmeyer received a ticket for loitering in a park known as a gay cruising spot. When asked for identification, he produced a drivers license with his father’s name, but his date of birth and home address. By early 2005, records indicate that Flynn and his vicar general at the time, Fr. Kevin McDonough, were informed that Wehmeyer had received an “obscure citation in a park.”
During the 2004 school year a boy told his mother that Wehmeyer was often in the third- and fourth-grade boys bathroom at St. Joseph’s school. She reported it to Piché. At a staff meeting, he simply reminded everyone that there was no reason for any adult to use the children’s bathrooms. He didn’t single out Wehmeyer. This was two years after the abuse scandals erupted in Boston, two years after the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference pledged to secure safe environments for children. Two weeks after that meeting, the mother observed Wehmeyer leaving the boys bathroom. Again, she reported it to Piché.
The mother later learned about Wehmeyer’s loitering citation from another school staffer, and the two approached Piché with their concerns about the cleric’s behavior. Piché suggested they meet with Archbishop Flynn about it. They did. The archbishop promised to make sure Wehmeyer received counseling, and said he would personally serve as his spiritual adviser.
Late in the evening of May 13, 2004, Wehmeyer approached two young-looking men at a Barnes and Noble and propositioned them. He told one of them that he was a priest, but was browsing “incognito.” Later that month, a local parishioner whose sons attended Wehmeyer’s parish learned about the incident. He reported it to Fr. McDonough, then vicar general, emphasizing that the men Wehmeyer harassed could pass for high-school students. The parishioner had them write statements about the encounter, which he gave to McDonough. The vicar general downplayed the incident as “thrill seeking,” comparing it to cruising for sex at a park, according to the criminal filing. In his April 2014 deposition, McDonough dismissed the parishioner’s concerns as vaguely homophobic. He “shared with a lot of people in the Catholic Church concerns about homosexuality,” McDonough said, and “did not like the idea of there being gay men in the priesthood.”
The parishioner set up a meeting with McDonough and one of the men who had been approached by Wehmeyer, so that the vicar general could see how young he appeared. McDonough told them that Wehmeyer would be sent to the St. Luke Institute—a treatment center for clergy with psychological issues—that his ministry would be restricted, and that the leadership of St. Joseph’s would be told about the incident, including the principal, the director of religious education, and the youth minister.
On June 1, McDonough gave St. Luke’s a memo summarizing Wehmeyer’s behavior as “risk taking” and “cruising” for sexual partners. He asked for a limited, not comprehensive, evaluation. McDonough wanted specific questions answered, owing to privacy concerns. Did his description of Wehmeyer’s actions fit with St. Luke’s assessment of the cleric’s “personality and commitments”? McDonough included the statements of the men from the Barnes and Noble incident, but did not share the concern about their youthful appearance.
The next day McDonough wrote another letter to St. Luke’s. He had good news. During a meeting with Wehmeyer on June 1, the vicar general was so impressed with the progress Wehmeyer had made that he considered cancelling the assessment. Even so, he thought it should go forward, even if only on a “rule out” basis.
About two weeks later, St. Luke’s delivered their findings. The assessors mentioned that they usually provide more wide-ranging evaluations, but were limited in what they could say by McDonough’s request to narrow the scope of their inquiry. “Much of the data collected during the evaluation interviews will be omitted from this report.” They were, however, able to diagnose Wehmeyer as having an unspecified “sexual disorder,” “unintegrated sexuality,” “adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood,” “occupational problem,” and a history of alcohol abuse. The report noted that Wehmeyer had received two DUIs, one while he was in college and another in 1990. He “hinted” at his struggle to remain celibate, and had not yet “come to grips with his sexuality.” Furthermore, Wehmeyer displayed a tendency to “overvalue his own needs” and could fail to appreciate the effects of his actions on others. Tests turned up “prominent paranoid traits,” but because of his stress level, it was impossible to offer a specific diagnosis of personality disorder.
St. Luke’s recommended that Wehmeyer have individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and spiritual direction. Assessors also called for “diocesan accountability.” If Wehmeyer continued acting out, according to St. Luke’s, he should probably receive treatment at an inpatient facility. He continued acting out, of course. But he never returned to St. Luke’s. And he never had inpatient treatment.
After receiving St. Luke’s evaluation, McDonough told Piché there was nothing to worry about. Wehmeyer was just experimenting, according to McDonough, and did not need to have his ministry restricted. Yet, in a September 2004 memo to Flynn, McDonough claimed that he had barred Wehmeyer from participating in youth programs earlier that summer. McDonough informed Flynn that he had met with Wehmeyer, Piché, and St. Joseph’s school principal to discuss Wehmeyer’s behavior, and that he would lift the restrictions if Wehmeyer and Piché had a similar conversation with the religious-education director and the youth minister. The school principal later reported that while she was present at a meeting with Wehmeyer, McDonough, and Piché, all they discussed was Wehmeyer’s sexuality. The youth minister said she had never been informed of Wehmeyer’s misconduct by anyone. Neither she nor the director of religious education was ever told about the restrictions McDonough claimed he had put on Wehmeyer.
By early October 2004, the parishioner who had initially complained to McDonough about the Barnes and Noble incident had come to believe that the archdiocese was no longer taking it seriously. He wrote to McDonough asking why St. Joseph’s leadership had not been fully informed of Wehmeyer’s behavior, as McDonough had promised. Why was Wehmeyer allowed to chaperone a youth trip over the summer? The parishioner shared with McDonough his concern that one day he would read about Wehmeyer in a police blotter. McDonough replied on October 11, falsely stating that St. Luke’s never recommended group therapy for Wehmeyer.
Less than five months later, in February 2005, McDonough received a report about Wehmeyer that appeared eerily similar to the Barnes and Noble incident. While they were in Jerusalem, according to the priest who informed McDonough, the two were walking down the street when two young Israeli men (they could have been sixteen or twenty-two, he said) began taunting Wehmeyer for being gay. Apparently he had met them at a bookstore, where they offered him a female prostitute. When he showed no interest, they offered a male instead. McDonough took this seriously enough to suggest to Archbishop Flynn that Wehmeyer might have to be removed from ministry and sent for intensive psychotherapy. Yet in a memo to Flynn, he described the two young Israelis as “adults, but still young.” In fact he did not know their ages. McDonough eventually confronted Wehmeyer, but prosecutors could find no evidence that Wehmeyer was suspended or sent for additional therapy.
Less than a month later, McDonough wrote to Flynn to report that, after meeting with Wehmeyer and his regular therapist, he heard nothing that would preclude Wehmeyer from being given a parish of his own. McDonough told the archbishop that he was “confident, given the nature of the concerns raised and his seriousness in addressing them, that Fr. Wehmeyer would constitute absolutely no danger to anyone in the ministerial setting.” For the second time in a year, McDonough had confronted Wehmeyer over past misconduct, only to persuade him that this time he was ready to straighten up and fly right.
Despite McDonough’s confidence in Wehmeyer, he still required him to participate in the archdiocese’s fledging clerical monitoring program. In 2005, the Promoter of Ministerial Standards program (POMS) was created to supervise sexually abusive priests—or those who had engaged in other forms of misconduct. It was designed with the help of a deacon who had a background in law enforcement. As he was putting together his recommendations for the program, the deacon reviewed the chancery’s priest personnel files. What he found was a mess. The files were incomplete, disorganized, inaccurate, missing important documents. It seemed as if no one had been paying much attention to them. The deacon submitted six recommendations for POMS, and made it clear that if the archdiocese failed to implement them all, he would not participate in the program. As the archdiocese put the program together, the deacon reduced his involvement, according to the criminal complaint.
One of the major sticking points for the deacon was his recommendation that the archdiocese use “outside professionals employing best practices” in monitoring priests, “especially modern probation techniques.” Jennifer Haselberger, former chancellor of canonical affairs, also pressed the archdiocese to implement modern monitoring systems, but it never came to pass. “They didn’t want to spend the money,” she told me. The deacon also urged the archdiocese to include with every settlement a clause requiring the offender to participate in POMS. Ramsey County prosecutors found no evidence that the archdiocese followed any of the deacon’s recommendations.
Indeed, participation in POMS was completely voluntary. McDonough drew up the monitoring requirements himself. One POMS monitor was responsible for keeping tabs on all program participants. Tim Rourke was the first. He would meet with POMS priests throughout the year, and file annual compliance reports with McDonough. Then McDonough and the archbishop would review the reports and decide whether the monitoring plan needed to continue, be changed, or conclude.
In May 2010, Rourke was monitoring thirty-one priests at one time, according to evidence cited by prosecutors. He worked fifteen hours a week, sixty-two a month, until he was injured the following year—after which he spent just twenty hours a month making sure dangerous priests were holding to their monitoring agreement.
Rourke was POMS monitor when Wehmeyer joined the program in February 2006. His monitoring agreement included many requirements—to report on meetings with therapists, with spiritual directors, to allow random inspections of his computers “for sites that conflict with his recovery program,” and others. “Despite repeated evidence” that Wehmeyer had violated his monitoring agreement, “McDonough consistently indicated that he was pleased with Wehmeyer’s progress,” according to the criminal filing. And the archbishop consistently signed off on Wehmeyer’s program.
Wehmeyer was allowed to self-report his therapy sessions. He stopped going to his therapist in 2010—in violation of his POMS agreement, and against the advice of the St. Luke’s assessment. Rourke tried to monitor Wehmeyer’s computer use, but he never learned how many devices the priest owned, or where they might be kept. Indeed, Rourke admitted that he lacked the technical know-how to determine whether Wehmeyer was steering clear of forbidden websites. When the St. Paul Police got hold of Wehmeyer’s computer, they discovered child pornography that had been downloaded in May, September, and October of 2007.
Given the obvious shortcomings of a voluntary monitoring program that concentrated power in the hands of one or two men, and which carried little to no consequences for those who violated their agreements, perhaps it’s not surprising that it would be called little more than “window dressing.” More surprising is the person who described it that way: Tim Rourke, former POMS monitor, in an interview with the St. Paul Police Department.
Monitored & promoted
Archbishop Flynn gave Wehmeyer his own parish in 2006—the year Wehmeyer entered the monitoring program. On June 16, the archbishop named him parochial administrator of Blessed Sacrament Parish. About a month later a police officer found him cruising in a park several times over two days. The officer reported it to McDonough, suggesting the behavior might indicate sexual addiction. McDonough confronted Wehmeyer, who initially denied the report. Wehmeyer then agreed to meet monthly with his POMS monitor. This apparently satisfied McDonough, who wrote in a memo that “no other steps need to be taken currently.” In his report to Flynn, McDonough again described the behavior as “playing on the edge.” He claimed that Wehmeyer had done nothing “expressly illegal or immoral.”
Two years later, on May 2, 2008, John Nienstedt succeeded Harry Flynn as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Within a year of Nienstedt’s installation, Wehmeyer began pestering him about his status at Blessed Sacrament. He wanted to be promoted from parochial administrator to pastor—a more secure position. In a letter dated May 1, 2009, Nienstedt told Wehmeyer that he “was not sure what the issues are behind the hesitancy about making you a pastor”—because he hasn’t checked his file. Nienstedt offered to look into it.
Yet Nienstedt had already been warned about Wehmeyer—just a few days before he sent that letter to him. In a memo dated April 28, 2009, Nienstedt’s top canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger explained that Wehmeyer’s behavioral problems had prevented him from being named pastor. She included a copy of his 2004 St. Luke’s assessment (which diagnosed him as having a sexual disorder, included information about his DUIs, and reported that he struggled with celibacy). Haselberger told Ramsey County investigators that she also attached a memo describing either the Barnes and Noble incident or the park-cruising incident. “I looked at the file,” Nienstedt said at a secretly recorded December 2012 meeting with Twin Cities priests. “I realized that he had same-sex attraction,” he continued, which is “not the same as pedophilia.”
Wehmeyer himself recalled to prosecutors that Nienstedt was well aware of his issues, but not terribly concerned about them. “Are you aware of my past? Are you aware of my record?” Wehmeyer asked Nienstedt at least twice. The archbishop replied: “I don’t have to look into that stuff,” according to Wehmeyer’s interview with investigators.
On June 1, 2009, Nienstedt named Wehmeyer pastor of Blessed Sacrament and St. Thomas the Apostle. He would be responsible for overseeing the merger of the two parishes.
‘You have a predator on your hands’
Four months after his appointment, on September 29, 2009, Wehmeyer made a pass at a fellow priest while the two were camping. The last time the two camped together, about a year earlier, Wehmeyer mentioned that one of his parish employees suggested he take her sons camping. The other priest warned him not to, as it was a violation of diocesan policy. At the time, Wehmeyer said he would follow that policy. But after his sexual advance was rebuffed, he apologized to the other priest—and admitted that he had taken those boys camping. They were his victims.
Wehmeyer left the campsite to pick something up at a local Kwik Trip gas station. While he was gone, his friend went home, fearing for his safety. Later that evening, Wehmeyer was arrested for driving drunk after a local man complained to police that the cleric was harassing “high-school-aged kids” at the Kwik Trip. Not knowing his friend had fled the campsite, Wehmeyer phoned him to see whether he would bail him out of jail. The priest declined. Wehmeyer pleaded guilty.
The priest contacted Piché—now an auxiliary bishop—about the camping incident. “I think you have a predator on your hands,” he told the bishop. “You have to be careful.” The bishop replied that Wehmeyer “could be a good priest,” according to the criminal complaint. Unsatisfied, the priest then contacted the vicar general, then-Fr. Paul Sirba, to see whether he had been in touch with the mother of the boys who camped with Wehmeyer. If Sirba didn’t, he would, the priest warned. Sirba said he would speak with her.
In a September 29, 2009, memo, Sirba informed Nienstedt of Wehmeyer’s DUI charge. He explained that Wehmeyer had been under the supervision of the Clergy Review Board, Tim Rourke (the POMS monitor), and his therapist. Nienstedt replied that in fact Wehmeyer was not being supervised by the Clergy Review Board or Rourke. In a memo sent the next day, Sirba told Nienstedt that Wehmeyer “has not been faithful to the program,” and that Bishop Piché suggested he speak with McDonough about the case, because he had worked with Wehmeyer about sexual-boundary issues before. Sirba reported that he was waiting for a return call from McDonough. Prosecutors found no evidence that McDonough replied.
In October, Wehmeyer phoned Nienstedt to apologize for the DUI. Nienstedt wrote in a memo that the cleric seemed repentant. He determined that “this had been a good lesson” for Wehmeyer, and took no disciplinary action against him. Nienstedt would later testify that he never saw the police report, and that no one told him Wehmeyer had been trying to pick up teenagers. He did not read Wehmeyer’s court-ordered chemical health assessment until June 2012—three years after the incident.
Sirba still had not contacted the mother of boys Wehmeyer took camping. The priest who first brought the issue to Sirba again urged him to speak with her. Sirba said he would. But first he went to the diocesan attorney, Andrew Eisenzimmer, who advised him to take the matter seriously. Eisenzimmer suggested Sirba loop in Fr. Eugene Tiffany, director of the Office of Priestly Life and Ministry.
On October 27, 2009, Sirba confronted Wehmeyer. He admitted to camping with one of the boys, but denied that anything untoward had happened. Sirba chided him—the trip was inappropriate and could cause scandal. Wehmeyer promised that it wouldn’t happen again, and suggested Sirba contact the mother, who would confirm that she had approved the trip.
Sirba spoke with her about a week later. He told St. Paul Police that the two discussed Wehmeyer’s perceived “boundary violations,” “helping father to set boundaries,” “prudence,” and “not giving anyone reason to be concerned.” On Sirba’s telling, the point of the conversation was inform the mother that caution must be observed so as not to imperil Wehmeyer’s status as a priest—or the safety of children. That isn’t how the mother recalls the conversation. She told investigators that Sirba was mainly concerned with protecting Wehmeyer’s image as a priest.
Sirba was named bishop of Duluth, Minnesota in December 2009.
‘Skeletons in his closet’
Wehmeyer was never disciplined for violating diocesan policy by camping with minors. In August 2010, he invited another priest to go camping. The priest arrived at the campsite to find that Wehmeyer was already camping with two boys who looked to be about seven and ten years old. They were Wehmeyer’s victims. The next morning the priest awoke to find one of the boys in bed with Wehmeyer.
The priest reported the incident to Bishop Piché on September 12. The bishop was visiting the cleric’s parish to rededicate the altar. After the Mass and reception, the priest walked Piché to his car. When they were alone, he told Piché what he had seen at the campsite. “Fr. Curt Wehmeyer has many skeletons in his closet,” the bishop replied, according to the criminal filing. Piché thanked the priest for the information, and drove off. In an interview with the St. Paul Police, the bishop could not recall receiving such a report. (The archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment on this incident.)
As a matter of policy, every diocesan staff member and volunteer must undergo periodic training in sexual-abuse awareness (one program is called VIRTUS). Late in 2010, a staff member at one of Wehmeyer’s parishes contacted a VIRTUS instructor to alert her to the fact that the priest’s parishes were not complying with the training requirements. On January 9, 2011, a VIRTUS seminar finally took place for staff and parishioners of Wehmeyer’s parishes. Many participants raised questions about boundary violations—some asked whether it was permissible for priests to take minors camping, or be alone with them in the rectory. One staff member privately informed the trainer that she had seen Wehmeyer offer to give a fourth-grader a tour of the rectory. She also shared a chilling exchange she had with Wehmeyer, according to prosecutors. As the two were standing outside church on a Sunday afternoon in July 2010, he gestured toward a child and said, “What a cute kid. It’s like he belongs on the back of a milk carton. If I were going to snatch a kid, it would be somebody like that.”
The VIRTUS trainer phoned the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection, and was referred to then-Vicar General Fr. Peter Laird. The following week, some time around January 12, 2011, she warned Laird about what she learned at Wehmeyer’s parishes. The woman who observed Wehmeyer offering a tour to a child and heard his crack about kidnapping a child later reported his behavior to Eisenzimmer, the diocesan attorney. He told her that he already knew about the camping.
A month later, Nienstedt approved Wehmeyer’s POMS monitoring plan. For some reason, it no longer required that his computers’ hard drives be periodically checked.
In May 2011, McDonough, now in charge of diocesan sexual-abuse policy, wrote to POMS monitor Rourke that Wehmeyer’s problems need not be disclosed to parish staff. “Disclosure there would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!),” he argued. McDonough again described Wehmeyer’s behavior as “playing with fire.” He made no mention of the camping incidents.
That summer, Wehmeyer is alleged to have abused a third victim during a camping trip in Wisconsin. He has been charged with second-degree assault of an unconscious victim.
Throughout 2011, the archdiocese received a series of disturbing complaints about Wehmeyer. At least a dozen people reported the priest’s “uncontrolled anger, demeaning outbursts, mistreatment, and emotional abuse of staff and parishioners.” One staff member reported that Wehmeyer had mocked a second-grader when she forgot how to make her confession. Bishop Piché included this information in a May 2012 memo to Nienstedt.
An earlier memo from Piché to Nienstedt and then-Vicar General Laird reported that one of Wehmeyer’s parish trustees had resigned after a series of conversations in which the priest admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking heavily. The parishioner had seen Wehmeyer drunk several times. He also told Piché that Wehmeyer had bought a gun—and had shown it to him and a couple of other parishioners. Piché expressed to Nienstedt his concern that any intervention would have to be handled carefully, because Wehmeyer seemed paranoid and desolate. “This seems serious,” Nienstedt replied. “What do we do next? I go there for Mass on April 14.” He asked for “concrete examples” of Wehmeyer’s troubling behavior, and Piché obliged with an account dating back to February 2012—including allegations of substance abuse, and the purchase of a gun.
Nienstedt spoke with Wehmeyer about the complaints from parishioners. Wehmeyer denied drinking too much. When Nienstedt admitted that he should have sent him for an alcohol-abuse assessment, Wehmeyer reminded him that he had already received one following his 2009 drunk-driving arrest. After Nienstedt finally reviewed it, he sent Wehmeyer to an alcohol- and drug-awareness program—and more counseling. Wehmeyer said that both were helpful. Relying on this self-reporting, Nienstedt concluded that Wehmeyer was making progress, according to a June 6, 2012, memo he sent to Piché and Fr. Peter Laird, vicar general at the time. Laird told the archbishop that Wehmeyer was not fit for ministry. Nienstedt told him he was biased, according to Laird’s police interview.
The dam breaks
Two weeks after Nienstedt wrote that Wehmeyer was making progress, the archdiocese reported to St. Paul Police that it had received an allegation of sexual abuse against Wehmeyer. According to the Ramsey County criminal complaint, that notification occurred on June 20, 2012. The timing is significant because Minnesota law requires mandated reporters—including clergy—to inform civil authorities within twenty-four hours of receiving information that indicates a child has been abused. Yet the decree Nienstedt signed ordering a canonical investigation of Wehmeyer for alleged sexual abuse is dated June 18, 2012. Under oath, Nienstedt claimed that Haselberger was responsible for drafting that document, and that she was simply mistaken. Failure to report suspected child abuse is the crime that Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of in 2012. (In April 2015, Pope Francis removed him as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph.)
Wehmeyer was arrested on June 22. Four days later, the man who initially reported the Barnes and Noble incident wrote to Nienstedt asking why the archdiocese didn’t do more to stop Wehmeyer. The archbishop replied that he could not explain the lapse.
On September 23, 2013, Laird wrote a letter to the archdiocese acknowledging that in 2009 church officials became aware that Wehmeyer had gone camping with a minor, and that the case could have been handled better. Five days later, he asked Nienstedt either to publicly state the advice he gave Laird regarding Wehmeyer, or to indicate in his file that he objected to leaving Wehmeyer in ministry. A year later, he resigned as vicar general.
Under intense scrutiny from the media, Nienstedt established a task force in October 2013. It would review all issues related to clergy misconduct and to make policy recommendations. It found numerous failures with respect to Wehmeyer’s case. Reports of his misconduct “were not handled well by archdiocesan officials, causing a delay that may have allowed further abuse to occur.” The Clergy Review Board never examined the case.
On November 8, 2012, Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct with two minors and seventeen counts of possession of child pornography. He is serving a five-year prison sentence. After Wehmeyer’s sentencing, Bishop Piché suggested that Nienstedt meet with the victims’ mother. That would allow the archdiocese “to say truthfully that they reached out to the family with compassion,” Piché wrote in a February 2013 memo to Nienstedt and Laird. Archbishop Nienstedt never met with her.
Nienstedt did, however, meet with clergy. At a December 2013 gathering—which was secretly recorded—the archbishop, along with Bishop Piché, responded to the questions and concerns of the assembled priests. Asked about the role of the media in beating the drums of scandal, Nienstedt recalled a conversation in which Laird said he wanted to resign. “He said, ‘I’m being painted with the same brush that you are being painted with in the press, and I think for my own integrity, I have to resign,’” according to Nienstedt. The archbishop was sure that the media would view Laird’s departure as an admission of guilt. “I think the person who’s been hurt the worst in this is Father Laird,” Nienstedt told his priests.
At the same meeting, Bishop Piché spoke about a “new reality, a new norm in terms of what is expected” of men suited to the priesthood. “The bar has been raised,” he continued, describing well the cause of the Catholic sexual-abuse scandal, the latest wave of which had broken a decade before: “In the past it may have been the case that certainly the bishop—but maybe also the Clergy Review Board—gave every possible benefit of the doubt to that priest so as not to shipwreck a vocation, to keep him in ministry.” Not anymore. “Now the atmosphere is very, very strong: ‘When are you going to stop protecting priests and protect the children?’”