Tim O’Malley moved into a tiny, windowless office in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2014 facing a daunting task: To overhaul the often secretive way it addressed child sex abuse by priests.

O’Malley, former head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, assembled a team of law enforcement leaders that scoured hundreds of abuse files from the past 60 years. They chased paper trails, interviewed witnesses, and laid the foundation for what is now seen as one of the nation’s most comprehensive archdiocesan child-protection systems.

That’s one of the most significant outcomes of the sex abuse scandal and the archdiocese’s bankruptcy. It recently reached a $210 million settlement with abuse victims. The constant spotlight on the archdiocese over the past four years injected pressures — and opportunities — to forge change, O’Malley said.

“We had everyone’s attention, from Doe 1 [the first victim’s lawsuit] to the bankruptcy,” said O’Malley, director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. “That’s taken us to where we are today.”

For survivors of sexual abuse by priests, the change has been dramatic. Frank Meuers, state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, for example, recalls just six years ago when he accompanied a woman to the chancery lobby to report sexual abuse by a priest. A staff person came out and yelled, “Get out, you troublemakers!” he said.

Today the Plymouth retiree meets O’Malley occasionally for breakfast to share ideas and concerns, and abuse survivors’ reports are taken seriously.

“It’s 180-degree difference,” said Meuers.

It helped that the court system was watching. The settlement of the first abuse victim’s lawsuit, or John Doe 1, mandated a historic overhaul of the way the archdiocese handled abuse complaints and abusers. Likewise, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, which filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for failure to protect children in 2015, is now monitoring progress toward its own mandated standards.

O’Malley hired some big names to help build an independent child protection system. His 12-person staff now includes three other former BCA colleagues, including former Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Campion. Patty Wetterling, national missing children’s advocate, is among the professionals on the revamped Ministerial Review Board that evaluates clergy misconduct, a board once dominated by clergy.

“I wanted people who were high quality, high integrity and people who I had a history with that would be candid with me,” said O’Malley.

Then and now

The archdiocese claims more than 800,000 faithful in 187 parishes in the metro area. The seasoned team occupying its St. Paul headquarters could not be more different from those previously in charge of priest oversight.

A 2014 archdiocese task force admitted the church “concentrated too much power in one or two individuals to make decisions regarding allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors. … These individuals were not subject to adequate oversight nor their decisions and actions subject to monitoring and audit.”

Police were not notified of abuse claims. Priest files were scattered in several locations. Documents were missing.

“It was daunting. Where do you start?” said Campion, who oversees a team of three investigators, including financial crime and internet pornography specialists. “Stuff was spread all over. It was almost like starting a new investigative agency.”

During the first year or so, investigators hunkered down in a makeshift office in the chancery basement, said O’Malley. They systematically reviewed hundreds of priests flagged by a previous audit, compiled missing information and created a cohesive portfolio on each priest.

The goal, he said, was to find “the truth of what occurred in each of those cases.”

Today that daunting task has been completed. The office now focuses on fresh reports of misconduct; fields questions from teachers, parents and others about possible violations; conducts internal investigations of abuse claims; and oversees child abuse prevention and education efforts.

The new culture is evident in a walk through O’Malley’s division. In a conference room last week, a new citizens’ advisory group was discussing issues to improve children’s safety in schools and parishes. Down the hall, staffer Michael Fulcher was auditing churches and schools for compliance with criminal background checks and training. More than 100,000 staff, volunteers and clergy have been trained to date.

O’Malley was in his corner office preparing for a meeting next week with victims’ attorney Mike Finnegan, who with his colleague Jeff Anderson now consults regularly with O’Malley.

Anderson, who has represented clergy abuse cases against the archdiocese for more than 30 years, praised the new processes. The archdiocese, he said, has moved from a system of “massive abuse coverups” to one run by “independent professionals, unrelated to the clerical culture.”

“They’ve now become the safest archdiocese in the country,” Anderson said. “But not as safe as it could be.”

Cases continue

Reports of priest misconduct continue. They are first forwarded to police, and the archdiocese conducts its own investigation when police finish theirs. Claims are handled in various ways.

In May, for example, O’Malley’s office began an investigation into the Rev. Thomas Joseph of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Carver. The Carver County Sheriff’s Office had completed its criminal investigation into allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with an adult. It declined to bring charges. Joseph, on a leave of absence, will remain so until the internal investigation is complete.

In March, the archdiocese rescinded its appointment of the Rev. Jules Omba Omalanga, a priest from Congo serving as a chaplain at St. Boniface parish in Minneapolis. Omalanga, who had been charged with fifth-degree domestic assault, no longer can work in the archdiocese.

A more controversial decision was made in January of this year, when the archdiocese allowed the Rev. Jonathan Shelley to return to “limited ministry,” serving people in prisons and jails.

Shelley was removed from ministry in 2012, after hundreds of pornographic images were found on his computer by a Mahtomedi parishioner. No charges were filed, as law enforcement could not determine whether the male images constituted child pornography.

The Shelley decision is an example of one that victims’ advocates disagree with, said Anderson. But unlike the past, the two sides continue to work cooperatively.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said O’Malley. “We have dealt with the past head on. But we have a long way to go.”