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?")
“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."