The man at the heart of the clergy sex abuse scandal now rocking the Catholic Church in Minnesota matter-of-factly explained in a court deposition that he abused at least 10 boys as he moved from parish to parish from the 1960s to 1980s.
In a deposition released Wednesday, former priest Thomas Adamson testified he met his first victims while coaching basketball teams at St. Adrian High School in Adrian, Minn., in about 1961. He said he admitted the abuse to the bishop of the Winona Diocese as early as 1964 — but no action was taken to remove him from ministry or to warn parents and children.
Instead, Adamson was eventually transferred to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1975, where he allegedly abused a man who is behind a 2013 lawsuit that has turned a spotlight on broader issues of child sex abuse in the archdiocese.
When asked how many boys he abused after moving to the archdiocese, Adamson responded: “I don’t know. I’d have to study that out.”
Adamson’s deposition is the latest in a series of depositions released by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who is representing “John Doe 1,” the man who claims he was abused by Adamson in the 1970s at his St. Paul Park parish.
Although Adamson has been deposed many times over the years, this is the first time his deposition has been made public, Anderson said.
“This is the first time people will have a glimpse into the mind of the molester,” said Anderson.
Adamson is significant because he was the first priest sued for abuse in Minnesota, the first to go to trial and the first to win damages, said Anderson, who has sued him about a dozen times. Adamson is accused of abusing at least 37 children during his roughly 25 years in active ministry.
He was removed from ministry in 1985 and from the priesthood in 2009.
In the car, gym
The former priest acknowledged he abused teen boys over the years in school gymnasiums, his car and his home. He remembered some names but not others.
The former priest said no church official ever asked him how many boys he had abused or their names.
The abuse typically started with him spending time alone with the young men, later touching their genitals and then advancing to sexual contact, Adamson acknowledged.
He met the boys through his work at Catholic schools, churches and their parents — including mothers who sought his help with troubled kids.
Adamson, ordained in 1958, testified that his sexual urges toward boys started when he became basketball coach at St. Adrian’s “and that led to contacts.”
He said he had sexual contact with his first young man, age 14, in 1961 because “I think he was very interested in me.” Adamson said he also came to know the victim’s brother, but he didn’t remember if he engaged in sexual activity with him.
“Did you at that time …. realize, look, I’m a priest, I’m an adult, this is a kid, this is a crime?” Anderson asked.
“Never,” the former priest said. “I looked at it more as a sin than … a crime.”
Adamson later testified he didn’t realize the seriousness of his behavior “till the lawsuits came” in the 1980s.
As early as 1963, Adamson — then superintendent of Catholic Schools in Caledonia — hit the radar screen of then-Winona Bishop Edwin Fitzgerald.
“Well, I had abused a boy there, and he reported it to another priest,” said Adamson, who was not disciplined.
Anderson then showed the former priest a list of 37 names of men who have accused him of abuse, and asked him to identify the boy. The name was not on the list. So Anderson asked him to find the blank space for Doe 38 and fill in his name.
The former priest went on to explain he had sexually abused the boy “probably in the gym or the school” a number of times. He said there was one other boy he was sexually active with at the school, who also was 14.
“I was coaching again and they were on the team.”
15 parishes, 25 years
And so the deposition went, as Anderson walked the former priest through abuse claims filed against him during a career that landed him in about 15 parishes and schools across the Twin Cities and southern Minnesota.
In Rochester, Adamson admitted he abused boys from the same family who attended St. Francis School. One was “Doe 9” on the list.
“Look at Doe 9. And did you abuse or attempt to sexually abuse him in a number of locations, including the car, hotel, YMCA and/or sauna?” Anderson asked.
“But you did engage both of them [Doe 9 and his brother] in contact …?”
Adamson said church officials did not report him to law enforcement. They sent him to several therapists, who weren’t able to end his sexual problems.
“Where it was leading me or if it helped, I don’t know that,” he said.
And the sexual abuse continued.
Did any bishop in Winona or the Twin Cities ever tell him that what he had done was a crime, he was asked.
“I don’t remember that, no,” Adamson said.
After a transfer to the Twin Cities, Adamson wanted to return to the Winona Diocese, but then-Bishop Loras Watters blocked it.
“I am convinced that he [Adamson] doesn’t even begin to appreciate the number of people in at least five different communities across the entire diocese who have finally pieced together incidents occurring over a 15-year span,” Watters wrote in a 1976 letter to a psychologist treating Adamson.
Adamson said the last time he engaged in sexual contact with a minor was while at Risen Savior Church in Apple Valley in the early 1980s. Court cases indicate the abuse of one young man from a previous parish continued through 1987.
Adamson left active ministry after the lawsuits erupted. He remained a Catholic priest until 2009 when Winona Diocese officials requested he voluntarily leave the clergy. He eventually returned to Rochester, where the diocese has restricted him from schools and parishes.
Adamson receives a $1,650 pension from the church, plus health and dental insurance, he said.