Charges Filed Against St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese Allege Failure to Protect Children

Criminal charges were filed today against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, stemming from its handling of a troubled priest who was eventually convicted of child abuse in 2013 and defrocked in March. Ramsey County prosecutors charged the archdiocese as a corporation with six gross misdemeanor counts alleging that it failed to protect children. A civil petition issued at the same time seeks court supervision of the archdiocese related to the protection of children.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, announcing the charges today, said, "It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well.” He said the archdiocese "time and time again turned a blind eye" to what was going on with Wehmeyer. Many of the complaints and troubling events related to the Wehmeyer case occurred long after the 2002 commitments on containing the problem of the sexual abuse of minors detailed in the Dallas Charter. (See "How effective is annual audit?")

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“Today, we are alleging a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the course of decades,” Mr. Choi said in a statement. "The archdiocese’s failures have caused great suffering by the victims and their family and betrayed our entire community—from the many courageous clergy and laypeople whose legitimate concerns about Wehmeyer’s behavior were ignored or minimized to those Catholics and non-Catholics alike who were falsely led to believe that the archdiocese had effective measures in place to protect children.

"By taking these actions, we are determined to hold the archdiocese accountable for its crimes, achieve justice on behalf of the victims and our community, and take all necessary steps to ensure that such failures by the archdiocese never happen again. 

"The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored, they cannot be dismissed and are frankly appalling," Choi told local media at a press conference announcing the filing of the criminal complaint.

Regarding the possibility of criminal complaints being filed against individuals associated with the archdiocese,  the county attorney’s office Public Information Officer Dennis Gerhardstein said, “At this time no, but the case is ongoing."

He said that the county attorney’s office felt that it had enough evidence now to begin building a case against the archdiocese as a corporate entity that had failed to live up to its obligations to protect children after it demonstrated a long-term “pattern of behavior” which put children at risk of harm.

“We’re still looking at evidence; this is not the end of our investigation.” He added, “This is where we are starting.”

The criminal complaint and civil petition filed today represent the results of a 20-month investigation, Gerhardstein told America. Much of Wehmeyer’s particularly sordid story has already been revealed to and recounted by local media in Minnesota, but the often-shocking narrative released today represents the first time that the county attorney’s office has attempted a comprehensive overview of the case, including various abuses and reports of same by Wehmeyer, and the archdiocese’s often troubling reactions to the reports about Wehmeyer.

Wehmeyer, currently serving five years for child abuse in Minnesota prison and facing more allegations in Wisconsin, appears in the county's narrative to have been troubled from the start of his seminary training. He was repeatedly reported, according to the county attorney's account, to archdiocesan officials over years for an accelerating number of troubling, often drug-and-alcohol-fueled incidents. The Wehmeyer story, Gerhardstein said, will be the center of the case the county plans to build against the archdiocese.

The archdiocese has yet to release a statement in response to the charges and a spokesperson for the archdiocese was not immediately available to comment on them. Reading the criminal complaint is not for the faint of heart. It depicts years of what to parents will no doubt appear inexplicable decisions at the highest level of the archdiocese as disturbing allegations against Wehmeyer and reports of his erratic behavior piled up.

In a statement released Friday night, Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, said, "We deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and are grieved for all victims of sexual abuse.

"We will continue to cooperate with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office. We all share the same goal: To provide safe environments for all children in our churches and in our communities."

Judge Tim O'Malley, Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, said, also in a statement released Friday, that because the county attorney was engaged in an ongoing investigation he would keep his response to the complaint and civil petition limited. He did comment, however, the that archdiocese administration has "the utmost respect for Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, his office, and the St. Paul Police Department, its investigators and Chief Tom Smith. Importantly, we equally respect the civil and criminal law processes here in Minnesota."

He said, "We all share the goal of protecting children. To that end, the archdiocese will continue to work with the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, as well as our private and public sector partners, to accomplish that goal. We share County Attorney Choi’s and Chief Smith’s commitment to prevent the kind of harm caused in the Wehmeyer case from ever happening again.

"As County Attorney Choi noted, facts must lead the way," said O'Malley. "Truth is in the details. We join Chief Smith in thanking those who have courageously come forward to help find that truth and, in turn, protect children. We also join the County Attorney and the Chief in encouraging anyone with information to contact the St. Paul Police Department.  The more complete the information, the more likely justice will be served."

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Rick Fueyo
2 years 6 months ago
I would have thought this could never occur at this late date. Terrible
Betty Gleason
2 years 6 months ago
I am appalled, outraged, and heartbroken that some members of the Catholic Church are still not complying with the mandates for protecting children primarily & all parishioners in general from criminal, disturbed, and self-seeking clergy. We are supposed to be setting standards of love and concern.
Carolyn Disco
2 years 6 months ago
It's about time and long overdue. Too bad it is only a "gross misdemeanor" charge, but by citing the archdiocese, the prosecutor pulls in all enabling officials. Put them on the stand under oath with full document disclosure available for inclusion. One wonders if all of a sudden, chancery memories will be so clouded, that no one recalls anything. This excerpt from an account at a Jesuit workshop for new superiors in 2000 is instructive: "we heard a talk by a newly installed bishop. He had worked in another diocese prior to his current post and said he often appeared in court to defend priests facing charges. He described how, as he was walking into court, he would recite to himself, "I'm sorry, Your Honor, but I do not remember." Those attending the dinner laughed loudly." http://ncronline.org/blogs/examining-crisis/surely-rome-can-do-better Remember, trials are adversary proceedings where truth is not necessarily spoken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's definition of what it means to tell the truth often escapes episcopal witnesses like that bishop. “Communicating truthfully means more than factual accuracy…There is a way of speaking which is…entirely correct and unexceptionable, but which is, nevertheless, a lie…When an apparently correct statement contains some deliberate ambiguity, or deliberately omits the essential part of the truth…it does not express the real as it exists in God.” May justice prevail in face of the facts the prosecution has unearthed. The courts are the premier source of accountability from church officials, forcing evidence into the public domain. Without the legal system, we would know little, if anything, about the abuse crisis.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 6 months ago
This case has been in the news for years. Just shows that rhetoric does not mean much. This diocese has wonderful rules on the books. But the old liars and save the monarchs at all cost mentality remains. How long will it take Francis to weigh in on this one. And does it take criminal charges for the pope to act? There goes the assertion that abuses occurred before 2002.
John Barbieri
2 years 6 months ago
"What is whispered in secret shall be shouted from the roof tops." -Luke 12:3. Let right be done.
Tim O'Leary
2 years 6 months ago
From reading the criminal complaint, this appears to be a most egregious case, both of abuse and of negligence on the part of the Bishop and many others around the abuser. According to page 6, the seminary knew in 1997 that Wehmeyer abused alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, and was a promiscuous homosexual and they still ordained him - recommended by Bishop Flynn!. (If the procecutor's timeline is correct, it seems that it was only after ordination that evidence surfaced that his proclivities included/advanced to underage boys). How desperate was St. Paul Seminary! It too needs to be investigated. I note that if Pope Benedict's Nov 2005 directive had been in place, and was being followed, he would not have been ordained. Also, the US Bishops many directives should have caught this case way earlier. We will see what comes to light in court, but it does appear to me that a gross misdemeanor seems too light a sentence for Bishop Flynn if he is found guilty.

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