The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis struck an unprecedented three-year agreement with the Ramsey County attorney’s office Friday to settle a civil case in return for enforcing new protocols to prevent and address child sex abuse.
The deal was reached in a civil case that Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office brought against the church in June alleging that it failed to protect children from an abusive priest. A criminal case simultaneously filed by Choi’s office against the archdiocese remains active.
The 24-page civil agreement filed in court Friday is noteworthy for a number of reasons: The church will appear in court every six months for three years to provide status updates, two independent audits will measure the church’s progress, and the agreement was the result of prosecution from the county attorney’s office, which one scholar said is a first.
“This is new territory,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and a national expert on clergy abuse litigation. “The ongoing oversight is critical, because there is an epidemic across the United States of organizations stating that they have the so-called ‘gold standard’ for the protection of children. But saying you have such a standard and following it are two different things, so this kind of continuing oversight is good news.”
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) embraced the news with caution and skepticism, noting that the church’s agreement comes under duress.
In addition to civil and criminal prosecution by Choi’s office, the archdiocese faces more than 400 clergy sex abuse claims in bankruptcy court.
“Any oversight by secular authorities beats purported oversight by other church figures,” said David Clohessy, director of SNAP. “I think it’s beyond foolish to assume there’s any change of heart in the [church] hierarchy until real, tangible and sustained reform have been consistently shown through deeds, not words.”
The criminal and civil charges filed by Choi’s office allege that the archdiocese failed in its oversight of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who was convicted of sexually abusing two brothers in 2010 while he was pastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. He also was convicted of abusing the boys’ older brother on a 2011 camping trip in Wisconsin.
In a news conference Friday morning, Choi called the filings “groundbreaking,” and the agreement a “landmark” decision.
“This historic agreement ensures systemic change and creates a framework of accountability that increases oversight and transparency,” Choi said, “and ultimately supports a cultural shift in how the archdiocese protects children and responds to alleged abuse.”
Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Archbishop Bernard Hebda said at a separate news conference that the church was committed to addressing child sex abuse.
“There will never come a day when we stand before you and the Catholic faithful and say, ‘That’s it. We’re done,’ ” Cozzens said. “Our commitment to protecting children and families will never end.”
The agreement requires the archdiocese to outline procedures for how to respond to abuse claims, to establish an independent ombudsperson to assist victims and their families and to allow Choi’s office to make recommendations for appointments to the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, among other things.
Complaints of alleged sex abuse will be addressed by the Ministerial Review Board comprising two priests and 10 lay members, instead of individual clergy members. The agreement also calls for the church to report abuse claims to law enforcement and refrain from conducting its own internal investigations.
Some aspects of the agreement were drawn from a landmark 2014 settlement between the archdiocese and attorney Jeff Anderson, who has sued the church repeatedly on behalf of abuse victims, that laid out a 17-point “child protection plan.”
Choi and church officials said the agreement goes above and beyond what a judge could have ordered them to follow had the civil case gone to trial.
The archdiocese’s voluntary commitment allows the deal to get around the First Amendment limits of what a judge can enforce, Hamilton said.
Hebda said the agreement has the full support of the board of directors of the Archdiocese, the Archdiocesan Finance Council and the College of Consultors, which represents priests.
Hebda replaced former Archbishop John Nienstedt, who resigned in June shortly after Choi’s office filed charges.
“It reflects a real commitment to learn from experts in areas of victim assistance, law enforcement and organizational management,” Hebda said.
The settlement still needs to be approved by the bankruptcy court, but archdiocese attorney Joe Dixon and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ring said at a court hearing Friday that work on the agreement would begin immediately.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Ring said.
The civil and criminal case were both heard Friday morning before Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner.
In the pending criminal case, the archdiocese faces three counts each of contributing to the need for child protection or services, and contributing to the delinquency of a child, all gross misdemeanors.
The criminal charges involve the same three brothers cited in the civil case.
Since a corporation cannot be jailed or imprisoned, any criminal conviction would likely result in fines — a maximum of $3,000 for each count. That’s why some feel that the civil action does more to hold the church accountable.
Warner told Dixon and Ring that she had granted several postponements in the case because she knew both sides were working on a settlement in the civil matter.
“You’re making a significant effort to protect not only the children … but citizens,” she told the attorneys.
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