The Ramsey County Attorney Office dismissed its child abuse case against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Tuesday and ended its four-year oversight of the archdiocese's child-protection initiatives.
The archdiocese will no longer have to file reports with the court detailing steps they've taken to keep children safe in its churches and schools. Tuesday's review was the eighth and final review in an unusual arrangement meant to ensure accountability as the archdiocese rebuilt that safety net.
"Today isn't an end to the agreement, I see it as a beginning," said Ramsey District Court Judge Teresa Warner, who has overseen the progress since 2016.
Warner said it's impossible to say that now "all children are safe," but that "many things are in place so the protection of children is paramount over other interests."
The Ramsey County Attorney's Office had filed civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese in 2015 alleging it failed to respond to repeated reports of sexual misconduct by former St. Paul priest Curtis Wehmeyer. The priest went on to sexually abuse the sons of one of his church employees in a camper he parked outside the church.
The case drew national attention, as it was the first time an archdiocese had faced criminal charges.
The civil charges were dropped in December 2015 with a settlement agreement. Criminal charges were dismissed in 2016 with a public apology by Archbishop Bernard Hebda and further strengthening of child-protection measures.
The mother of the boys who were abused stood before the courtroom Tuesday and told Warner that she now has "a sense of hope" that the church is a safe place for children.
And her now-adult sons, Stephen and Luke Hoffman, said they were grateful that their case has generated institutional changes, which they hope will prevent other children from enduring their fates.
"I feel relieved," said Luke Hoffman, who with his brothers attended a news conference after the hearing. "Relieved that it is finally all coming to an end, that it is out of our lives."
Hebda apologized to the Hoffman family, and he said he had been humbled by their courage to report the abuse and work with the archdiocese and county to ensure change.
Dismissing the case is not a time for celebration, Hebda said, but rather a time to collaborate more with "those who can make a difference." That includes clergy abuse survivors.
"Addressing sexual abuse in our church is a duty that will never cease," Hebda said.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the 24-page settlement agreement reached in 2015 had several goals, including justice for victims, accountability of offenders and preventing future sexual misconduct. Choi said he also wanted to create "culture change" so the interests of children took priority over the interests of clergy or the institutional church.
Choi said he believes those changes have happened.
Assistant County Attorney Thomas Ring reported to Warner that he had interviewed more than 50 "stakeholders" about the archdiocese culture regarding sexual misconduct, including people in the chancery, the seminary and in churches. The consensus was the culture has changed for the better.
In particular, victims of clergy abuse now have several people they can report the abuse to, instead of having reports funneled to one person.
But Frank Meuers, Minnesota director of Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests (SNAP), is among the clergy abuse survivors asking why there appears to have been little accountability for the priest who oversaw clergy abuse reports for more than a decade, the Rev. Kevin McDonough. Meuers said he's contacted the archdiocese several times, including writing to Hebda, about this.
Tim O'Malley, director of the archdiocese's Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, responded that his office is reviewing "thousands of documents" related to abuse cases.
"His [McDonough's] role in the past is being examined by the [Ministerial Review] board today," he said.
The archdiocese's reports before the court over the years have laid out many new initiatives. It requires child protection training and background checks for all employees and clergy, including in seminaries. It has expanded and professionalized the Ministerial Review Board, which examines reports of sexual misconduct. It has built an office for safe environment that oversees all aspects of clergy misconduct.
It created a lay advisory board to find ways to help people affected by the clergy abuse and resulting bankruptcy. It also hired an independent auditor to examine whether it is following the settlement agreement.
Most recently it has been holding prayer circles and restorative justice sessions at churches and other venues, including a session held this month at the Holiday Inn in Lake Elmo.
"This is like a marathon," Choi said. "The work will continue."