Priest sued in abuse of West St. Paul girl, 8, in the 1980s

The case of a West St. Paul second-grader in the 1980s is the 18th in Minnesota since state law changed to allow more time for such suits.

A Catholic priest who served churches in St. Paul, West St. Paul and Hopkins was accused in a lawsuit Tuesday of abusing a girl in West St. Paul, bringing to 18 the number of suits filed against Minnesota Catholic clergy and leaders since May.

The lawsuit against the Rev. Robert Thurner, 87, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis also alleges that the archbishop of St. Louis — former Twin Cities auxiliary bishop Robert Carlson — was among church officials who were informed that Thurner had sexually abused another child before he was transferred to the girl’s church in 1983.

The lawsuit comes as the archdiocese reels from recent allegations of sexual misconduct among its clergy and lack of disciplinary action in the chancery. On Wednesday, archdiocese priests will gather for an all-day meeting that is expected to include discussion of the sexual abuse issue.

According to the latest complaint filed in Ramsey County District Court, Thurner admitted to archdiocese authorities in 1982 that he bought liquor for a 16-year-old boy and sexually abused him.

Carlson and former Twin Cities Archbishop John Roach were among four top archdiocese leaders who were privy to the admission, archdiocese internal memos indicate.

The archdiocese did not warn families at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hopkins, where Thurner was serving, nor at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, where he was transferred the following year, the suit charges.

Thurner went on to abuse the plaintiff, who was a second-grader at St. Joseph’s School during the 1984-85 school year, the lawsuit claims. Her parents had invited Thurner to her home, where the abuse had occurred, said Mike Finnegan, an attorney at Jeff Anderson & Associates, which is representing the victim.

“The archdiocese and its top officials made a choice … to protect their own reputation and protect Father Thurner’s reputation rather than looking out for the well-being of a child,” Finnegan said.

The law firm sued Thurner in 1991 and 1993, alleging that he had abused two boys during the 1980s, Finnegan said. Those cases were settled out of court, he said.

Representatives from the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese declined to comment on the case. The media representative for Carlson’s St. Louis offices did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Aware of issues 2 years earlier

The latest plaintiff is a woman in her 30s who lives in the Twin Cities. Her lawsuit is part of a growing wave of litigation made possible by a change in Minnesota law this year that gives past abuse victims a three-year window to bring lawsuits that previously were barred by a statute of limitations.

The woman had remained silent until recent publicity about priest sex abuse prompted her to Google his name, Finnegan said.

“She had never told anyone in her life about this,” he said.

Internal archdiocesan memos distributed to the media at a news conference Tuesday indicated that the chancery was aware of Thurner’s sexual problem as early as November 1982, two years before he allegedly abused the girl. In a memo from then-Archbishop Roach (now deceased) to Carlson and Monsignor Ambrose Hayden (also deceased), he wrote:

“I met with Father Robert Thurner on November 10. Father Thurner explained that he had had a brief sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy and had also purchased liquor for that boy. There was no connection between the liquor and the sexual advances.”

Thurner offered to resign from St. John’s shortly after that letter was written. In May, Roach transferred him to St. Joseph’s, praising him for his work but never mentioning the abuse or establishing any restrictions on his contact with children.

“Bob, I want to take this opportunity to express my sincerest gratitude for the excellent work that you have done in your priesthood,” Roach wrote in a letter dated May 25, 1983. “I pray that this will be a time of growth and less pressure for you.”

Tuesday’s lawsuit accuses the archdiocese of failing to inform law enforcement authorities that Thurner had sexually abused minor children. Anderson said an expert on mandatory reporting laws gave his office a written opinion that Roach and Carlson, as members of the clergy, were required to report abuse to law enforcement or to child protection officials.

“As a direct result,” the lawsuit states, “Thurner avoided criminal investigation and prosecution and continued to abuse minors.”

Under fire in Missouri

Anderson said he will seek to interview Carlson, under oath, for this latest lawsuit. The St. Louis archbishop also is facing legal troubles on the home front.

Carlson was accused of negligence this summer in a lawsuit filed in Missouri by the family of a teenage girl who said she was molested by a priest in the St. Louis archdiocese, the Associated Press reported.

The priest was charged with child endangerment last year. The suit also accuses Carlson of trying to tamper with evidence by asking for the return of a $20,000 check given by the priest to the family.

Finnegan said his information about Thurner indicates that he is still alive and living in the east metro area. Thurner retired from ministry in 1991 after serving at the Church of St. Therese in St. Paul.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, a former vicar general in the archdiocese, asked Thurner to retire because of the lawsuits at that time, he said.

‘Tell us the truth’

Meanwhile, parish priests continue to speak out against Archbishop John Nienstedt’s handling of the sex abuse allegations.

In his sermon on Sunday, the Rev. Stephen O’Gara, pastor of the Church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul, called on Nienstedt to address the allegations personally, not “through e-mails and letters in the Catholic Spirit.”

“I want us all to demand that he come forward,” said O’Gara. “Clean slate. Stand before a venue of people and answer the questions. Tell us the truth. Then maybe with that truth we can forgive.”

 

hopfen@startribune.com 612 • 673-4511 tony.kennedy@startribune.com 612-673-4213

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