Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis admits it failed to protect kids

Criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis were dropped on July 20, after the archdiocese admitted that it failed to protect children who were sexually abused by a former priest. As part of the settlement, internal documents were unsealed, including a memo from an archdiocesan official that accuses the pope’s former ambassador to the United States of trying to squash an investigation into the alleged sexual improprieties of a former archbishop.

“Today I, as the leader of this archdiocese, stand before you to say we have failed, in what we have done and what we have failed to do,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda said at a news conference following a court hearing.

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He also apologized on behalf of the archdiocese.

“Those children, their parents, their family, their parish and others were harmed. We are sorry. I am sorry," he said.

Prosecutors had been pushing the church to admit wrongdoing in how it handled complaints against former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. And with that admission, the case was closed.

“Today, the archdiocese has publicly admitted that it contributed to children being sexually abused by putting the interests of the institution and its former priest above its duty to protect children,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a statement.

Wehmeyer was sentenced to prison in 2013 for sexually assaulting three people, two in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin, and for possession of child pornography. The archdiocese kept information about Wehmeyer’s behavior secret for several years.

According to reports, one of the documents unsealed Wednesday was a 2014 memoto Auxiliary BishopLeePiché from the Rev. Dan Griffin, a lawyer who was serving as the archdiocese’s liaison with the law firm investigating Archbishop John Nienstedt.

Archbishop Nienstedt, according to the memo, had been accused of carrying on a “social relationship” with Wehmeyer, “which may have affected his judgment.” Investigators retained by the archdiocese were asked to look into that charge, as well as other accusations that Archbishop Nienstedt was engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with seminarians, priests and a member of the pope’s Swiss Guard.

According to the memo, a meeting was convened in Washington, D.C., attended by Father Griffin, Bishop Piché, Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Archbishop Carlo Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States. The memo reports that following the meeting Archbishop Viganò told the archdiocese not to continue the investigation. Archbishop Nienstedt flew to Washington as well and had a conversation with Archbishop Viganò after the nuncio met with the two auxiliary bishops, the memo reads.

After Bishops Piché and Cozzens wrote a letter to Archbishop Viganò expressing their opposition to his request, Archbishop Viganò told the bishops to destroy their letter, the memo says.

Father Griffin wrote that destroying the letter would be “a crime under federal law and state law.” He added that he found it “most distressing” that the request came from “a papal representative to the United States.”

“What has unfolded in the face of compelling evidence amounts to a good old fashioned coverup to preserve power and avoid scandal and accountability,” Father Griffin continued. “As a result, the archdiocese and the wider church is now facing a much more significant scandal.”

In the memo, Father Griffin praised the lawyers investigating the claims against Archbishop Nienstedt for their discoveries, especially remarkable while working within what he called “the secretive culture of the church which is replete with fear of reprisals.”

Archbishop Nienstedt resigned last June, 10 days after criminal charges were brought against the archdiocese. Archbishop Viganò retired earlier this year. A civil case against the archdiocese’s handling of the Wehmeyer case was settled in December, and Wednesday’s announcement adds to the terms of that settlement.

According to the county attorney’s office, the record of the civil case has been altered to reflect the archdiocese’s admission of guilt. “The Archdiocese failed to keep the safety and wellbeing of these three children ahead of protecting the interests of Curtis Wehmeyer and the Archdiocese,” the record now says.

In addition to admitting its negligence, the archdiocese agreed to a handful of additional steps mandated by civil authorities to protect children.

Church authorities will be subject to civil oversight until 2020, and the archdiocese agreed to place a civilly appointed member on its ministerial review board. Patty Wetterling, a former chairwoman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, will serve in that role.

In addition, the archdiocese will provide counseling for victims and their families, and Archbishop Hebda will participate in at least “three restorative justice sessions” organized by the prosecutor’s office.

“As this case comes to a close, it is important to recognize that it was the people of the archdiocese—the laity and clerics—who made our legal action possible by coming forward and telling the truth,” Choi said.

But David Clohessy, head of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement Wednesday that he was “disappointed” in Choi’s decision not to bring charges against individual church officials.

“Wrongdoing is deterred when wrongdoers are punished,” Clohessy said. “But not one Twin Cities Catholic official is being punished—in the courts or in the church—for repeatedly deceiving parishioners, moving predators, hiding evidence, stone-walling police or endangering kids.”

Choi maintains there was not enough evidence to bring charges against Archbishop John Nienstedt or other officials, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

A lawyer for the archdiocese said that the dismissal of all criminal charges is “unconditional.”

Michael O’Loughlinis the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Carolyn Disco
1 year 3 months ago
As it happens, there was a fairly similar case to this Minnesota settlement agreement back in 2002 in New Hampshire. There, the NH Attorney General’s office signed a settlement agreement with the statewide Manchester diocese. It likewise involved audits of the implementation of sexual abuse policies, and the dismissal of further legal actions/prosecutions. The Manchester experience perhaps contains some cautions for the Ramsey County Attorney (RCAO). I note the current settlement specifies an annual compliance audit, which is far less probing than a performance audit. The legal differences are meaningful. A compliance audit basically is a checklist that policies were developed and implemented. A performance audit by contrast determines if those policies are working, i.e., effective, and sets methods to improve them. Who may be interviewed by auditors, what questions may be asked or surveys used, and the manner of implementation are far more stringent in a performance audit. I read somewhere that RCAO is prevented from interviewing anyone other than central office personnel. That’s disconcerting, if so. The MN auditors of course are hired by the Archdiocese, who is paying and in charge of the process; in NH the State AG’s office headed the investigation, hired the independent audit firm, and in the end basically interviewed whom they selected. NH’s Bishop John McCormack went to court to prevent such access, but lost. He had been so concerned about the State’s pending performance audit that his court challenge dragged out the case over a year so that only four annual audits could be completed in what was set for a five-audit schedule. McCormack also raised First Amendment issues, but lost as well on those counts. Another question: Will auditors have a right of access to personnel files, original documents with allegations (or later – perhaps biased – summaries), and so forth? Who can see what, is a vital matter in making judgments. Words are cheap without the actions to enforce them. Let us hope County Attorney John Choi will be vigorous and fearless in enforcing the settlement, following the example of NH justice officials who stood firm despite obstruction and clever wordsmithing. Hebda of course is a skilled lawyer, who like countless bishops uses bleached language in referring to those “harmed.” Another linguistic pattern is to speak of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Both Hebda and McCormack repeat the exact same words, but I long to hear a more accurate truth about obstruction of justice, sexual assault, and endangerment of children. PS: Part of Judge Carol Conboy’s ruling explaining the different types of audits: “The court cannot accept the Diocese’s contention that the audit may assess only whether the programs, trainings, etc. required under the agreement have been developed and/or provided…..” (compliance audit) “The Diocese has also agreed “to revise as necessary” its policies and protocols for preventing, responding to, and ensuring the reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse. The agreement to “revise as necessary” child sexual abuse policies and protocols contemplates an obligation beyond merely “developing” or “implementing” such policies. Rather, the Diocese’s agreement to revise such policies “as necessary” implies an agreement to submit to an audit to determine whether its policies are working—that is whether they are “effective.” (performance audit)

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