Priest facing abuse lawsuit has 10 victims, attorney says

The suit accuses church officials of moving the Rev. Jerome Kern to an Edina church in 1969 after parents in St. Paul said he fondled boys.

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Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina in 1998.

Photo: Audrey Lee, Star Tribune

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A Catholic priest known by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for sexual misconduct was sued Thursday — the first of what attorneys say will be multiple lawsuits against him and the archdiocese.

The Rev. Jerome C. Kern was accused in a lawsuit of “sexual battery” involving an Edina boy from 1972 to 1976. Kern had been transferred to our Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina in 1969, after parents at his St. Paul church informed the archdiocese that he had sexually fondled their two school-age sons, attorneys said.

The lawsuit, in Ramsey County District Court, also names the archdiocese on civil charges related to its transfer of Kern to that church without addressing his alleged problems and without notifying families.

The plaintiff, now a man in his 50s, is one of at least 10 people abused by Kern that the law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates is aware of, attorney Mike Finnegan said. The firm is preparing three more suits against Kern, he said.

“What’s interesting about this case is that Kern has had a low public profile, but already we know about 10 victims,’’ Finnegan said. “At this early stage of the game, that’s a large number.’’

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis issued a statement saying it would investigate and respond to the claims. Kern was removed from ministry in 2002, it said, and “has been compliant with a monitoring program.”

“We are completely committed to ensuring the safety of children and young people who have been entrusted to our care,’’ the archdiocese’s statement said.

Kern, 72, is living in a residence for retired priests near the St. Paul Seminary and could not be reached for comment.

19th lawsuit since May

The Kern lawsuit is at least the 19th filed against Minnesota Catholic clergy and leaders since a state law took effect in late May. The law lifted the statute of limitations for suits claiming clergy sexual abuse of children, and provides a three-year window for litigation of previously barred claims.

The latest suit, filed on behalf of “Doe 26,” accuses the archdiocese of being aware of Kern’s sexual misconduct at St. Mark’s Church in St. Paul, where he served from 1966 to 1969, but still transferring him to Edina.

The parents of the two boys abused in St. Paul had reported the incident to the archdiocese, according to a 1969 handwritten letter distributed at the news conference. That letter said that Kern had taken their sons to Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis and repeatedly tried to put his hand inside their swim trunks.

The chancery never responded to the parents’ letter or concerns, according to the law firm. Only 20 years later, when the now-adult victims contacted the archdiocese again, did the chancery acknowledge a problem, lawyers said.

“Knowing what we know now about pedophilia and about how it is rarely a singular act, we would have some reason to question Fr. Kern’s insistence that the event of the summer of 1969 was a singular event,’’ the Rev. Michael O’Connell, then vicar general, wrote in a June 1987 memo to a clergy sexual rehabilitation center where it was sending Kern.

“We have no reason to believe that the event did not happen exactly as they described it,’’ according to the memo, which also notes that Kern had been observed in a Loring Park area “infamous ... as being a pick-up place for homosexual men.’’

‘I don’t want another kid hurt’

The archdiocese went on to assign Kern to serve Our Lady of Grace in Edina, where he allegedly abused Doe 26 several times when he was 12 to 16 years old, the lawsuit said. Kern touched the boy’s genitals and made him perform oral sex, Finnegan said.

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