The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis appeared in Ramsey County District Court on Thursday in the nation's first case of an archdiocese charged with failure to protect children.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed criminal and civil charges against the archdiocese last summer, citing the church's failed oversight of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. Wehmeyer was convicted of sexually abusing two sons of a parishioner in 2010 in a camper parked outside the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, where he was pastor.
It is the first time a U.S. archdiocese has been charged with such an offense, and just the second time a U.S. archdiocese has been criminally indicted in a clergy abuse case, say national legal scholars. Clergy abuse cases historically have focused on individual priests.
In an initial appearance on Thursday, archdiocese defense attorney Joe Dixon and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Tom Ring appeared before Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner. Dixon did not enter a plea.
Warner said she would hear both the criminal case — and the accompanying civil case — on the same schedule. She set the next court date, for a pretrial conference, for Nov. 30.
Acting Archbishop Bernard Hebda later issued a statement saying that he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the Ramsey County attorney's office.
"Our goal remains the same," Hebda wrote, "to make sure children are safe in our communities, schools and parishes."
Choi also issued a statement, noting that since the charges were filed in June, Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché have resigned and that the archdiocese "has begun to demonstrate a spirit of reform."
"We remain steadfastly committed to our overall goals of holding the Archdiocese accountable for its role in contributing to the harm done," wrote Choi.
The case is being watched nationally by scholars of legal strategies in clergy sex abuse.
The actions are "precedent-setting," said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and a national expert on clergy abuse litigation.
She said the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for older civil cases, has pried open church papers documenting the abuse.
"It opened the door to the discovery of facts, and those facts could be used for criminal prosecution," she said.
The only other archdiocese to face clergy abuse charges was Cincinnati, which in 2003 was found guilty of failing to report clergy sex abuse, she said.
In announcing the charges in June, Choi said they reflect a "disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior, committed by the highest levels of leadership."
The archdiocese is charged with six gross misdemeanors. Each carries a maximum fine of $3,000. The county attorney's office also filed a civil petition that it says "is intended to seek legal remedies to prevent the archdiocese from allowing this behavior to ever happen again."
Meanwhile, in bankruptcy
The case, and its accompanying legal fees, comes as the archdiocese faces more than 400 clergy sex abuse claims in bankruptcy court.
On Thursday, archdiocese attorneys asked for an extra six months for exclusive rights to file its reorganization plan. It cited the volume and complexity of the claims.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel granted the extra time. But he smacked down an archdiocese request to hire BRG Capstone — at a "reduced" top hourly rate of $595 per hour — to handle possible future sex abuse claims filed after the Aug. 3 deadline.
BRG Capstone, a global consulting group based in the San Francisco Bay Area, estimated that the job would cost about $150,000.
Archdiocese lawyer Richard Anderson noted that many other archdioceses in bankruptcy have hired special teams to handle future claimants. Kressel wasn't having it.
"My reaction to that is the same as your mother's would be," Kressel said.
Kressel declared the possibility of future claims "remote." Any people who do come forward are already represented by the Committee of Unsecured Creditors, he said.
The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January. The squadron of advisers and lawyers the church has hired cost it $2.3 million from June to September, according to the latest monthly operating report filed in court.
This is the second extension the church has received on the exclusivity period for filing its reorganization plan — a period during which no one but the debtor can file such a plan. The new deadline is May 31, 2016.