Officials in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis ignored or shrugged off warnings of improper behavior involving a parish priest now jailed for child sexual abuse, prosecutors said Friday, as they charged the archdiocese with six counts of failing to protect minors.
The charges, gross misdemeanors, are against the archdiocese as a corporation, not against individuals, but the criminal complaint cited high-ranking clergy, including Archbishop John Clayton Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Rev. Lee Anthony Piche, as being among those who were allegedly told of concerns about the behavior of the former priest, Curtis Wehmeyer.
“Father Curt Wehmeyer has many skeletons in his closet,” Piche told one person who consulted him in 2010 after having seen Wehmeyer in bed with a teenage boy during a camping trip, the complaint alleged.
In 2009, a year after Nienstedt was elevated to archbishop, the complaint said he ignored warnings about Wehmeyer and promoted him to oversee the merger of two parishes.
It also said Nienstedt’s predecessor, the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn, had been warned that Wehmeyer had a history of alcohol abuse and soliciting sex from young men, and that former Vicar General Kevin McDonough, who was responsible for coordinating the response to sexual abuse claims, repeatedly insisted the priest was not a danger to children.
“What the facts are and what the law allows and what justice requires is that we file criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for its role in failing to protect children and contributing to the unspeakable harm that was done to three young sexual abuse victims of Curtis Wehmeyer,” Ramsey County Atty. John J. Choi said at a news conference. “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well.”
In a statement, Judge Tim O’Malley, director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment at the archdiocese, said in part, “We all share the goal of protecting children.” O’Malley said the archdiocese would work with police and prosecutors “as well as our private and public sector partners, to accomplish that goal. We share County Attorney Choi’s and Chief Smith’s commitment to prevent the kind of harm caused in the Wehmeyer case from ever happening again.”
A separate comment from Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said in part, “We deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and are grieved for all victims of sexual abuse. We will continue to cooperate with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office. We all share the same goal: To provide safe environments for all children in our churches and in our communities.”
The archdiocese, according to its website, ministers to 825,000 Roman Catholics.
Wehmeyer is serving a five-year sentence in Minnesota after pleading guilty in November 2012 to three felony counts of sexual conduct with two minors and 17 felony counts of possession of child pornography. He also faces charges in Wisconsin in connection with a third minor. Those charges were filed last November.
Choi said more than 50 witnesses, including clergy and lay people, provided information that led to the charges against the archdiocese. They included parents of the victims, who first went to police in June 2012 after hearing of the abuse from their sons. The abuse was alleged to have occurred during camping trips in 2010 and 2011, when the boys said Wehmeyer plied them with booze, marijuana and pornography and then molested them.
Two of the victims were brothers. One of them, known as Victim 2, reported that Wehmeyer would get into bed with him when they slept in a camping trailer. “Victim 2 stated that he would put up a barricade of pillows and blankets to try to separate himself from Wehmeyer while they slept but, when he would awaken, would find the barricade removed and Wehmeyer’s hands touching his private parts,” according to the criminal complaint.
Each of the six counts against the archdiocese carries a possible one-year sentence and a fine of $3,000, but prosecutors said the investigation that began about 20 months ago remained open.
“We will continue to investigate allegations,” said St. Paul police Chief Tom Smith.
“We need the public’s help,” Smith said, urging victims and witnesses to come forward if they had information. “The more people the better.”
The charges against the archdiocese come just a few weeks after the resignation of Kansas City Bishop Robert W. Finn, the first U.S. Catholic bishop to be convicted for his role in the church’s sex abuse scandals. Finn was found guilty in September 2012 of failing to report sexual abuse by one of his priests, Father Shawn Ratigan. Ratigan is serving a 50-year prison term.
A 2002 investigation by the Dallas Morning News identified 109 bishops accused of enabling sexual abuse within the U.S. church. According to 2010 data compiled by BishopAccountability.org, a site that has tracked the abuse scandal, 45 of those bishops had retired, 15 were promoted, 12 resigned and three died in office. One bishop’s role as administrator ended and a new bishop took over.
Wehmeyer was ordained in 2001. Three years later, he received a citation for loitering in a St. Paul park, in an area known as a spot for men to pick up other men for sex, according to the criminal complaint.
In 2005, despite hearing repeated complaints about Wehmeyer related to suspicions that he was drawn to boys and men, the complaint said McDonough assured Flynn, then the archbishop, that Wehmeyer “would constitute absolutely no danger to anyone in the ministerial setting.”
Even after a sheriff’s deputy spotted Wehmeyer four times in two days hanging around park areas known as pickup spots for men, and alerted McDonough, the complaint said McDonough denied there was a problem. Instead, he said he believed Wehmeyer simply enjoyed the “thrill” of being in the environment, and he told Flynn the priest was just “playing on the edge” and not doing anything immoral or illegal, the complaint said.
According to the complaint, Wehmeyer himself was surprised when he was promoted in 2009. In a phone call with investigators in March 2015 from the prison where he is serving his time, Wehmeyer said that he asked Nienstedt at the time of his promotion, “Are you aware of my past? Are you aware of my record?”
He said the archbishop replied, “I don’t have to look into that stuff,” the complaint said.
A group representing victims of clergy abuse, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a statement that it welcomed the prosecution of the archdiocese and that credit belonged to the victims who had come forward.
“We believe this is the first time in more than a decade that a Catholic diocese has faced charges,” said the statement from the group’s victims outreach director, Barbara Dorris. Dorris predicted, however, that the church would hire “expensive lawyers, exploit every technicality and fight bitterly to protect their clerical careers.”
“It’s crucial that current and former church staff and members overcome their fears, pick up the phone and call the law, whether they’re victims, witnesses or whistleblowers,” she said.
Follow @TinaSusman for national news