Task force calls for major reforms in how archdiocese responds to sexual abuse by priests.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis suffers from “serious shortcomings” in its handling of child sex-abuse complaints that have allowed priests to continue abusing victims, sometimes for years, a task force reported Monday.
The solution, according to the church-ordered study, is to foster a culture that “places victims first” and creates more accountability by involving ordinary church members in the oversight and discipline of wayward clergy.
“The Archdiocese concentrated too much power in one or two individuals to make decisions regarding allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors,” according to the task force created last fall in the wake of numerous allegations that local priests had abused children and other parishioners. “These individuals were not subject to adequate oversight nor their decisions and actions subject to monitoring and audit.”
The 53-page report outlined a series of problems, recommending the archdiocese place abuse decisions in the hands of an expanded Clergy Review Board, tighten monitoring of misbehaving priests, and put more scrutiny on seminarians.
“The instances of clergy sexual abuse of minors that have occurred in this Archdiocese are tragic, dreadful, and heartbreaking,” the report said. “Sadly, these crimes might have been prevented if the archdiocesan officials in positions of authority over the abusers had responded appropriately to misconduct.”
The Safe Environmental and Ministerial Standards Task Force was led by the Rev. Reginald Whitt, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, who chose its seven members.
Archbishop John Nienstedt, in a written statement, said the report would guide the archdiocese as it works toward the goals of protecting children, healing victims and restoring trust in the church.
“We look forward to working in collaboration with Fr. Whitt to implement these recommendations,” he said.
The task force interviewed 32 people, ranging from child psychologists to chancery officials. It did not, however, interview the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the archdiocese’s longtime point person on child abuse. McDonough declined to be interviewed, the report said, as did chancery whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger.
Nor did the task force interview former vicar general the Rev. Peter Laird, who resigned last fall following news reports implicating him for having had knowledge of sexual misconduct by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer. The task force requested an interview, but “the archdiocese had represented they had no way to contact him,” the report said.
The task force later learned that Laird had given Nienstedt his cellphone number and had offered to speak with task force members.
“The Task Force sees this failure to communicate and lack of urgency as an example of the kind of issue that the Archdiocese needs to address to change its culture,” the report said.
Church culture blamed
The culture of the archdiocese was mentioned several times in the report, which urged the archdiocese “to foster a culture that places victims first,” and that is open to criticism and more lay leadership.
Its first recommendation, in fact, was to place the authority for investigating child abuse complaints with a Clergy Review Board, of which the majority of members would be lay people. It also urged that lay people become involved in the admissions process at the St. Paul Seminary.
The archdiocese’s failure to create a professional oversight process for sex abuse reports is the underlying theme of the report. The poor channels of communication among the staff handling sex abuse allegations is frequently mentioned.
For example, the chancery’s abuse victim advocate, who is also the adviser/advocacy services coordinator, did not meet with top archdiocese officials to share reports from the community, the report said.
“There is virtually no communication with senior Archdiocesan officials about the complaints being received by the [Advocacy Services] Coordinator nor are there any meetings to discuss what the Coordinator is hearing or responding to with respect to clergy misconduct or other inappropriate behavior,” the report said.
Even among key boards and top decisionmakers, abuse complaints often went unknown, the report said. For example, Wehmeyer, who was convicted of criminal sexual conduct involving two minor boys in November 2012, had a long history of sexual misconduct that went unreported to the Clergy Review Board, the report said.
Between 2004 and 2009, Wehmeyer “was observed engaging in sexual banter with young men in a Roseville bookstore; questioned by police when they saw him ‘cruising’ at a Maplewood park … and arrested for Driving Under the Influence (DWI) in Spring Valley,” the report said. Even after the archdiocese began monitoring him, and began receiving reports that Wehmeyer was camping with boys, “no one alerted the Promoter [of Ministerial Standards] or the Clergy Review Board. Indeed, the Wehmeyer case never came before the Board.”
The task force made a half-dozen recommendations. They included creating:
• An improved auditing and monitoring program for priests being monitored because of misconduct.
• A centralized record-keeping system on clergy abuse that is accessible to all decisionmakers.
• New policies on disposing of computers and other electronic communication used by clergy.
“We hope the Archdiocese moves forward with these recommendations as quickly as possible,” the report said.
Victims’ advocates were not impressed with the report.
“As long as we act like these are ‘mistakes’ and not intentional, self-serving choices by smart but selfish men, kids will continue being hurt and crimes will continue being concealed,” said Barbara Dorris, national outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511