Archbishop John Nienstedt pledged Monday to release a partial list of clergy members the church has identified as sex offenders, a document that the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has fought to keep secret since 2004.
Nienstedt also acknowledged that the archdiocese had kept one priest — the Rev. Clarence Vavra — in active ministry for nearly a decade after the priest admitted sexually abusing several young boys.
The 74-year-old Vavra, now living in New Prague, is among the priests the archdiocese listed as credibly accused sex offenders in 2004, according to an open letter Nienstedt sent to the media. The letter came in response to a Minnesota Public Radio report showing the church never disclosed Vavra’s abuse to parishioners or law enforcement.
Nienstedt said he would soon release the names of clergy the church found to have abused minors, and who were still alive. Other names could come later, after a review by an outside firm.
“Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him [Vavra],” wrote Nienstedt. “ … too much trust was placed in the hope of remedying Vavra’s egregious behavior. Not enough effort was made to identify and care for his victims.”
Nienstedt said the list would include “the names, locations and status of priests who are currently living in the archdiocese.” All have been removed from the ministry, he said.
Victims advocates and attorneys have lobbied for years to get the list of sex abusing priests made public. U.S. bishops had commissioned a national inventory of alleged clergy abuse cases not long after the sex scandals erupted in the Archdiocese Boston in 2002. Dioceses were asked to review records over 50 years and submit data for the study, which was released in 2004. Dioceses have updated the lists every year since.
It’s unknown how many names will be made public, or how many are on the list today. Thirty-three clergy members in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese were on the 2004 version, according to Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who represents plaintiffs in clergy misconduct cases.
Advocates are skeptical
Nienstedt’s pledge to go public with the list was met with skepticism by victims’ advocates and attorneys. The list described by Nienstedt leaves out priests who have moved outside the diocese, priests who have died, sexual offenders removed from the priesthood, and priests accused of sexual misconduct with adults, said Anderson.
“If Twin Cities pedophile priests now live in Rochester or Winona or Duluth, tough luck: They’re not going to tell you who or where they are,” said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Likewise, the lists omits the names of priests from religious orders operating in the archdioceses, said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks clergy offenders nationally.
The archdiocese, however, said it wanted to focus on cases with definitive information.
“There has been a protective order in place in Ramsey County District Court since 2009 related to the disclosure (of the list),” the archdiocese said. “We will seek permission from the court to make such disclosure.”
But a bishop pledging to open even part of the list due to public pressure is rare, McKiernan said. About 25 of the nation’s 178 dioceses have released the lists, nearly always as part of legal settlements, he said.
Apology for Vavra case
Nienstedt apologized for the way the archdiocese responded to Vavra, who in 1995 reported that he had sexual contact with boys while working on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota about two decades earlier. Vavra went on to work in at least four parishes until 2003, when he was removed from ministry.
Vavra’s sexual misconduct was not limited to boys. He also “engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with other adult males during his tenure as an active priest,” wrote Nienstedt.
The MPR report indicated that three archbishops overlooked Vavra’s sexual problems, including Vavra’s alleged sexual interest in a convicted child rapist and a murderer.
Nienstedt acknowledged that after Vavra was removed from ministry in 2003, he received $650 a month in “transitional support”. The payments were supposed to stop when his retirement benefits kicked in, but they were not discovered until a 2012 audit and then halted.
The archdiocese said it did not report Vavra’s move to New Prague to local law enforcement “because the monitoring program required him to refrain from interaction with minors.”
Reached by phone Monday, Vavra said he considers New Prague his home. “I’ve been staying out of trouble, yes,” Vavra said.
Asked to comment on Nienstedt’s statements, Vavra said, “I’ve hired an attorney and you can speak with him.”
The attorney, Steve Zard of New Prague, declined to comment. Vavra raised his voice and hung up the phone when asked if he had any remorse for his reported abuse of children.
“I told you: No more comments and no more questions. God bless you,” the priest said.
The archdiocese believes opening up the list of abusive priests will help bring transparency to other cases.
“Offering expressions of regret and sorrow seem so inadequate in the context of the crimes of the offenders and our failures to deal with them properly,” Nienstedt wrote. “My heart is heavy for the victims of this repugnant abuse.”