Settlement Brings Court Oversight

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota announced a landmark civil settlement with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis related to a civil case that alleged grave breakdowns in the archdiocese’s child protection policies. According to County Attorney John Choi, the primary objective of the settlement is to transform the organizational culture of the archdiocese “into one that is vigilant about ensuring that no child will ever again become the victim of clergy sex abuse.”

“Today’s historic agreement increases oversight and transparency to systemically change how the archdiocese protects children and responds to suspected incidents of child sexual abuse,” said Choi. “It is my expectation that the facts of this case will never be repeated and the protection of children will forever be of paramount importance within this archdiocese.” The “case” referred to by Choi involved Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who is now serving a prison term for molesting two boys in 2010.

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Civil charges will be stayed for three years while the church puts in place enhanced policies and practices to protect children. The archdiocese would have to submit progress reports to the court every six months, and the civil case would be dropped after three years if the court is satisfied with its progress. An accompanying criminal investigation will continue, the county attorney’s office reported.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, described the agreement in a letter to parishioners as “an opportunity for us to do all we can to make sure children are as safe as possible now and into the future.”

Archbishop Hebda wrote, “From the time I first arrived here in June.... I have worked to learn as much as I can about the events surrounding” Wehmeyer and “his abuse of children under his care.”

According to the archbishop, since his appointment he had been in dialogue with Choi and his staff. “We immediately realized we all had the same goal: to make sure children are safe in our churches, schools and communities….we worked together to find the best ways to make that a reality.”

Days after the civil and criminal complaints were filed by Choi’s office in June, Pope Francis accepted the resignations of the former archbishop of Minneapolis–St. Paul, John Nienstedt, along with that of Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, and appointed Archbishop Hebda as the interim leader. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January, and the proposed settlement will require federal bankruptcy court approval.

According to Archbishop Hebda, “much of what is in the new document are things we are already doing, while others are practices and procedures that are already working in some dioceses around the country. We are agreeing to implement the plan under a set deadline and to be held accountable for that commitment.”

Choi’s office reports that the settlement “incorporates many of the October 2014 Child Protection protocols agreed upon by the archdiocese…as well as the 2014 recommendations of the [archdiocesan] Safe Environment Task Force.”

Two independent audits will be completed in 2017 and 2018. Among other new procedures, when allegations of misconduct, including sexual abuse of a child, arise in the future, they will now be addressed by the Ministerial Review Board, rather than allowing one or two members of the clergy to determine how to respond.

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