Judge orders St. Paul archdiocese, Winona diocese, to release lists of accused priests

Judge orders release of names by Dec. 17 of 46 accused of abusing minors in St. Paul archdiocese and Winona diocese.

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The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona must release the names of 46 priests accused of sexually abusing minors, a Ramsey County district judge ruled Monday.

Judge John Van de North ordered that by Dec. 17 the church must provide not just the names of the priests but their year of birth, year of ordination, the parishes they served, their current ministerial status, current residence and whether they are alive.

The Twin Cities archdiocese has held secret the names of 33 credibly accused abusers since it compiled the list in 2004 and won a 2009 ruling allowing the list to remain private. Church officials returned to court Monday seeking permission to disclose the names, following a wave of new clergy sex abuse allegations that have led to the abrupt departures of several top leaders in the local church.

The archdiocese said Monday it welcomed the ruling and pledged to release the list Thursday on its website and in the Catholic Spirit newspaper.

“The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is grateful for the approval of Ramsey County court to release information relating to priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors in our archdiocese,” the archdiocese said in a statement issued Monday night.

The Winona diocese, which had 13 priests on its list, has not offered a timeline for its release.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney specializing in clergy sex abuse cases who has been trying to get the lists released, also welcomed Monday’s ruling.

“We are greatly relieved that finally there will be disclosure so children will be protected from further harm and those who have been hurt can come forward,” Anderson said.

Archbishop John Nienstedt has appointed a task force to review the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations and hired a consultant to review clergy files. Last month, he pledged to make public a partial list of the credibly accused priests.

“The archbishop believes the whole list issue is becoming a distraction,” archdiocese attorney Thomas Wieser told the judge. “The archbishop wants the healing to begin.”

This fall’s allegations have reverberated through the local church and toppled Nienstedt’s vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, prompted abrupt resignations from the University of St. Thomas board by former Archbishop Harry Flynn and his former top deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, and forced the removal of two priests from area churches.

In his ruling, Van de North also ordered the release of the names of priests added to the list since the original list was compiled. That list must be filed with the court by Jan. 6, 2014. Another 13 clergy on a similar list compiled by the Winona diocese also must be released.

Church offers to name 29

In court, Wieser offered to provide the information for 29 of the 33 priests on its list, which was compiled a decade ago in response to a new child protection charter created by U.S. bishops. It includes the names of credibly accused clergy from 1950 to 2002.

Wieser said the shorter list could be made public as early as Thursday.

But the judge ordered that information for all 33 priests on the list be filed with the court. If not provided, a detailed explanation must be presented, he said.

Bob Schwiderski, director of the Minnesota chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called the ruling “huge.” It comes on the heels of a change in Minnesota law that gives abuse victims a three-year window to file lawsuits claiming past abuse, removing the statute of limitations that blocked many cases.

“I think this sets a precedent for other courts,” said Schwiderski. “We’ve got 106 credibly accused priests in dioceses of Minnesota. We’ve got 60 to go.”

Every diocese in Minnesota has a list of “credibly accused priests,” and Anderson’s firm has filed lawsuits in each one to pry open the lists. In one of those suits, filed by John Doe, Ramsey County Judge Gregg Johnson ruled that Anderson could not release the names on the list.

There are 26 names on the list in St. Cloud, 17 in Duluth, 12 in New Ulm and five in Crookston, said Mike Finnegan, an attorney at Anderson Advocates law firm.

The majority of dioceses have not made them public. Nationally, about 25 of the nation’s 178 dioceses have released the lists, nearly always as part of legal settlements, said Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based group that tracks clergy abuse.

The lists were compiled a decade ago, when U.S. bishops commissioned a national inventory of alleged clergy abuse cases not long after scandals erupted in Boston in 2002. Dioceses were asked to review records over 50 years and submit data for the study, which was released in 2004.

Many names already known

Many names on the list are already known to Minnesotans, said Van de North. Twenty of the 33 names are on Anderson’s website, he said, such as the Rev. Clarence Vavra, the Rev. John T. Brown and the Rev. Thomas Stitts, who has died.

The list mainly relates to reported abuse between the mid-1950s and 1980s, according to the archdiocese statement released Monday. All of the men who will be identified have been permanently removed from ministry.

As for the four priests whom the archdiocese did not want to identify, Wieser said that the archdiocese has hired former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson to examine evidence against three of them, to make sure they were “substantially accused” of sexual abuse.

Anderson asked whether the archdiocese was creating a new standard for releasing priests’ names. Under the 2004 U.S. Bishop’s report, a priest who was “credibly accused” of sexual misconduct was to be included on the list. “Substantially accused” is “raising the bar,” Anderson charged.

As for the “list” of abusive priests from 2002 to today, Wieser said there is only one. That is the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a St. Paul priest now serving prison time for sexually molesting two boys.

The archdiocese stated, however, that “the “disclosures are not intended to be final.” The list will be updated as additional information is acquired through the current clergy review files.

Making public the names of clergy abusers will help heal the wounds of survivors, who often have felt alone in their suffering, said Schwiderski.

“It might not open a floodgate of new victims, but it will open a floodgate of emotions,” said Schwiderski, who was abused by a priest as a boy.

Given the clergy sex abuse cases now on court dockets, making public the list of offending priests could provide information that would be “relevant at trials” for claims of negligent hiring and negligent retention, said Van de North.

“This provides a method, puts a time line on things, and moves things forward,” he said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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