Jim Keenan, a Twin Cities clergy abuse survivor, is one of two plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Vatican, demanding it release its files on thousands of priests who have sexually abused children.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court-Northern District of California by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who argued the Vatican is the central repository for the names and histories of priests worldwide who have been engaged in misconduct, and is endangering others by not revealing their identities.
Anderson cited the 2014 "coverup" of the investigation into former St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt, which documents indicate was halted by the then papal ambassador to Washington, as one example of the Vatican's "policy of secrecy." Anderson also released new documents on the Nienstedt probe revealing concerns over the former archbishop's decisions and behavior.
Nienstedt has denied any wrongdoing.
"People ask, 'How can you take on the Pope?' " said Anderson, at a news conference in San Francisco. "The answer is, we must."
This is the third time Anderson has sued the Vatican. Previous lawsuits were dismissed by the court.
But Anderson believes the new lawsuit has traction due to mounting evidence of clergy abuse in the U.S. and worldwide, and Vatican documents that acknowledge it are in the repository of abuse files. Specifically, he referred to a 2001 mandate by the Holy See that all abuse be reported to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Anderson released several documents from the 2014 investigation into potential misconduct by Nienstedt, which was abruptly halted and never made public. Nienstedt had been under scrutiny after a St. Paul priest, Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, was named pastor of a church despite having a history of sexual misconduct. Wehmeyer went on to sexually abuse two boys at his church.
The documents indicated that some archdiocese officials worried that Nienstedt's judgment may have been tainted because Wehmeyer had a "social relationship" with the archbishop. Nienstedt had made several other decisions about priest placements that were questioned.
"I have come across a number of decisions made by the Archbishop Nienstedt that raise serious concerns," wrote a chancery official in a memo to then-Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché and other top leaders.
An archdiocese investigation into a priest accused of having a homosexual affair "had a rare opportunity to sit down with the archbishop," a memo says, after which the investigation was "abruptly closed before its completion." A priest with "several reports of homosexual misconduct" seeking permission to work in the archdiocese was approved by Nienstedt, despite a legal counselor's recommendation against it.
Nienstedt appointed as his secretary a priest who had been arrested for solicitation in a St. Paul park known for gay cruising, also writing on his behalf to the court in favor of expunging his arrest, the memo said.
This church official also noted that the investigation found 10 credible witnesses to sexual misconduct by the former archbishop, and other leads remained. But Piché and Bishop Andrew Cozzens were told to halt it by former papal Ambassador Carlo Maria Viganò, said the lawsuit and church documents.
In an e-mail Wednesday, Nienstedt denied he had a social relationship with Wehmeyer. He said he was unaware of the depth of his problems when he was assigned as a pastor. He denied all allegations of sexual misconduct.
When Nienstedt stepped down as archbishop, he said, "I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults."
Push for accountability
For Keenan, the archdiocese's failure to protect him from a serial sex abuser — former priest Tom Adamson — points to the urgency for the Vatican to open its vaults and reveal the predators.
"This suit doesn't aim to take down the church," said Keenan, "just to make it accountable."
The Vatican is a sovereign state and can only be sued with limited exceptions, said Anderson. In this case, it is being sued for an international violation of human rights.
Tim O'Malley, the director of safe environment for the Twin Cities Archdiocese, issued a statement after the lawsuit announcement, stressing the importance of having nonclerical people involved in church investigations.
"Archbishops and bishops, like priests, must be held accountable," said O'Malley. "The direct involvement of objective and competent laity ... is necessary for the process to have credibility with the public."