The pressure is on Minnesota dioceses to release lists of priests accused of abusing children.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, under fire for its handling of two cases involving sexual misconduct by priests, is also fighting a battle on a second front, facing heightened demands that it release a list held in secret since 2004 of alleged sex offenders among its clergy.
A court hearing on that issue in Ramsey County was where allegations of a child pornography coverup first surfaced last week.
A total of six court hearings seeking the release of secret lists, involving every diocese in Minnesota, are slated for this fall, with additional actions targeting about a dozen Catholic religious orders in Minnesota, said St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who is leading the effort.
A hearing in Crookston on Wednesday marked the first of those hearings, with attorneys for an abuse victim asking a judge to compel the local diocese to release its list. Hearings in New Ulm, Duluth and Winona are next.
Release of the full tally, which might run to dozens of priests facing credible allegations of abuse, could ignite an entirely new round of accusations and lawsuits at a time when many Catholics thought the worst of the clergy sex abuse tragedy was behind the church.
For years, Anderson has asked for the release of the lists as part of his litigation on behalf of abuse victims. And for years, bishops have refused the request, with the church arguing that it would damage priests on the list who were shown to have been falsely accused.
“Every single bishop in Minnesota has kept that list secret,” Anderson said.
In the past, the courts have sided with the church on the issue because Minnesota’s statute of limitations gave child sexual abuse victims only until age 24 to take legal action.
But a state law that took effect in May gives victims older than 24 a three-year window to sue for past abuse. Anyone younger than 24 has unlimited time to take legal action.
The new law could provide a key to opening the vaults, Anderson said. “Because of the change in law, there’s a change in our ability to start the process of forcing disclosure of these secrets,” he said.
Patrick Wall, a former priest and a victims advocate at Anderson’s office, said release of the lists would clarify the scope of abuse in Minnesota.
“What you will find, more likely than not, are credibly accused child molesters in the ministry, several hundred [abuse] victims in archdiocese files and a much larger financial scandal involved in protecting priests,” Wall said.
Roots in wider scandal
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.
About 25 of the nation’s 178 dioceses have released the lists, nearly always as part of legal settlements, according to Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based group that tracks clergy abuse.
The lists have been updated by dioceses over the years, McKiernan said.
About 33 clergy members in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese were on the 2004 version, Anderson said. Another 13 were in the Winona Diocese, five in Crookston, 17 in Duluth and 12 in New Ulm, he said.
It’s unknown how many priests are on the list now.