A board that reviews troubled Catholic priests in the Twin Cities archdiocese — once faulted for being insular and ineffective — has a new makeup and a high-profile member: Patty Wetterling, the state’s best-known advocate for child safety.
Wetterling’s reputation, built on her work since her 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted in 1989, adds another layer of credibility to the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board as it grapples with the aftermath of a clergy abuse scandal.
“A lot went wrong,” Wetterling said by phone last week. She is optimistic about the “intent and structure” of the board, she said, which is “trying to ensure that the church is doing all that it says it’s doing going forward.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi touted Wetterling’s appointment at a news conference Wednesday announcing that his office was dropping criminal charges against the archdiocese. He also announced he was releasing documents showing an effort to quash an investigation into alleged sexual improprieties by former Archbishop John Nienstedt.
“I know her colleagues on the board will certainly be looking to her as a member with great amounts of experience and knowledge and perspective,” Choi said later by phone. “And I know the archbishop will, too.
“Somebody with this much experience and background, you can’t ignore.”
Choi recommended Wetterling for the board as part of the settlement with the archdiocese. That agreement, which requires the archdiocese to regularly provide the court with updates on its child protection progress, is aimed at “allowing decisionmaking to be influenced by people who are non-clerics,” he said.
Choi picked Wetterling in concert with Tim O’Malley, the law enforcement veteran hired by the archdiocese in 2014 to oversee its effort to investigate clergy sex abuse.
Both men have known Wetterling for years — O’Malley since he was a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent investigating Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping from a rural road in St. Joseph. Later, Patty Wetterling worked with O’Malley as she helped train officers and counsel families, said O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment.
Wetterling embodies how the dozen board members’ broad range of perspectives will help make better decisions, he said.
“She has a resolve and a compassion, and yet she’s levelheaded,” O’Malley said.
Wetterling’s appointment comes nearly two years after the archdiocese overhauled the way it handled allegations of clergy sex abuse and hired O’Malley to lead the charge.
When O’Malley started the job, there were two boards: the Clergy Review Board and the Ministerial Standards Board.
A church task force that year found that the archdiocese “concentrated too much power in one or two individuals to make decisions regarding allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors” and recommended that the Clergy Review Board grow bigger and include more lay people.
The new board weighs information on alleged clergy misconduct and makes recommendations to O’Malley, who then advises Archbishop Bernard Hebda. The board is informed of the final decisions.
Wetterling is the first person on the board to be publicly announced. O’Malley said the group includes one priest, one deacon and 10 lay members. Two members are not Catholic, he said. Four have law degrees. Two are doctors.
Wetterling, who attended her first meeting in July, said she agreed to be on the board largely because of her “tremendous amount of respect” for its members, which she said includes “all my favorite prevention people.”
She is not Catholic or an active member of a church, but she considers herself a “very spiritual person.”
Having non-Catholics on the board is key, Choi said, giving confidence to people who worry that Catholics on the board would be deferential to the church’s leaders.
“I know Patty has the integrity … that she wouldn’t hesitate to walk away if she felt that … what she got herself into is compromising who she is and what she believes in,” Choi said.
Wetterling has helped change how Minnesota and the country, including police, respond to missing children, and she has worked to prevent them from being snatched in the first place.
In the three years she served as board chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a group she’s helped lead for more than two decades, 11,654 children were located, a number the group put on a plaque.
In the nearly 27 years since Jacob disappeared, some of the suspects targeted by investigators have been from the Catholic community around St. Joseph. But Wetterling has also participated in positive events within the Catholic Church, she said, including a recent celebration at St. John’s Abbey marking the 50th anniversary of a monk’s vows.
“There are some really good people doing really amazing work,” she said. “How can we maintain that and protect that and fix the part that’s not right?”