St. Paul police fault archdiocese's handling of priest before arrest in abuse case

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2013 - 9:31 AM

Authorities questioned the visit by the former vicar general and a deacon before arrest in abuse case.

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Father Kevin McDonough, left, in a 2002 file photo.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune

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It was June 21, 2012, and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was about to be confronted by officials of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in St. Paul had been under church supervision for sexual misconduct, and a mother had recently confronted him with suspicions that he was abusing her son. Now she had gone to officials at the chancery.

The doorbell rang, and in came the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the influential former vicar general, and Deacon John Vomastek, a former cop. A parish employee at the scene said they took Wehmeyer into a closed office. A short time later, according to the employee and police accounts, McDonough and Vomastek left the building, and Wehmeyer was left on his own to pack up and move out.

He was free for the next 28 hours, when police arrested him.

Law enforcement documents would later show that by the time police got to Blessed Sacrament, Wehmeyer had removed his camper from church property, McDonough had taken Wehmeyer’s work computer to the chancery and church officials had interviewed the child who first came forward to allege abuse.

The church’s handling of Wehmeyer’s case infuriated police, interfered with evidence and disrupted the early phase of the criminal investigation, according to law enforcement documents, a parish employee and St. Paul police Cmdr. Mary Nash.

“With them going and getting to Wehmeyer before us, it did complicate the case,” Nash said. “It gave him an opportunity to hide the scene of the crime [the camper] and to get out of the sight of police for the short term.”

Questions about McDonough’s and Vomastek’s actions were answered Thursday by archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso, who said the timeline in the police documents is inaccurate and the archdiocese worked closely with police. “We did not put the police at a disadvantage because they were notified throughout the entire time,’’ he said.

The 47-year-old priest quickly pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography, surprising investigators. But Nash said it was problematic for the archdiocese to conduct an initial interview of the victim and then tell Wehmeyer that he faced arrest. Removing one of the priest’s computers from his residence also “hindered the chain of evidence,” Nash said.

Wehmeyer’s sexual abuse of boys at Blessed Sacrament is one of a growing number of cases that have brought the archdiocese under intense criticism for its handling of clergy sex abuse cases. Now St. Paul police are investigating whether the archdiocese possibly overstepped legal boundaries by not immediately reporting the initial allegation.

Even if the probe doesn’t result in charges, the archdiocese violated best practices for handling such allegations, according to child protection advocates.

“You need to report immediately and then get out of the government’s way,” said Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University.

“The absolute standard is not to do your own investigation,” said Emily Huemann, director of Ramsey County’s sexual violence program.

Nash said the church’s lack of cooperation with police forced investigators to spend hours searching for the priest and the camper.

“You don’t know what happens in between them tipping him off and what he does or what evidence he could destroy in the meantime,” said Nash, who heads the Police Department’s family and sexual violence unit.

Accurso said police could have arrested Wehmeyer at Blessed Sacrament at 2 p.m. on June 21, 2012, but chose not to act. Police spokesman Howie Padilla said officers couldn’t arrest Wehmeyer at that time because investigators had not interviewed the victim or his mother, and lacked probable cause. Had the archdiocese alerted police earlier, those interviews would have been complete and Wehmeyer would have been arrested on the spot, Padilla said.

Timing in question

Wehmeyer is serving a five-year sentence for child sex abuse and child pornography. He pleaded guilty to abusing two boys, ages 12 and 14, in his camper on the church lot.

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