Convicted Minnesota priest removed from clerical state

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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One of the primary priests that triggered the now more-than-yearlong clergy sex abuse scandal in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese has been laicized.

The archdiocese announced Wednesday afternoon that the Vatican has removed Curtis Wehmeyer from the clerical state. The decision bars him from presenting himself as a priest or exercising priestly ministry. In addition, he cannot teach or hold a leadership role in any Catholic institution.

Wehmeyer is currently serving a five-year prison sentence. In November 2012, he pleaded guilty to 20 felony charges for the sexual abuse of two minors and possession of child pornography; he was sentenced the following February. He was charged in November in Wisconsin of second degree sexual assault of a teenage boy in relation to a summer 2011 camping trip.

In a statement, Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt said that Wehmeyer has been notified of the decision, as have all the archdiocese’s priests and parishes.

“I am deeply saddened and have been profoundly affected by the stories I continue to hear from victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse. My focus, and the focus of the Archdiocese, is to do all we can to keep children safe while offering resources for help and healing,” he said.

Wehmeyer has played a central role in the eruption of the Twin Cities abuse scandal in fall 2013,  as one of numerous priests identified by former chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer Haselberger as possible risks to children.

While Wehmeyer was arrested June 22, 2012, internal documents made public by Haselberger and Minnesota Public Radio showed that the archdiocese was aware of complaints and concerns of inappropriate sexual behavior since 2004. Haselberger has stated she brought concerns about Wehmeyer to Nienstedt and the archdiocese as early as 2009, about a year after she began as chancellor.

Related: Former chancellor: Twin Cities archdiocese 'far, far from best practice' on abuse

In depositions, church officials consistently stated that the prior reports did not indicate the priest was a danger to children. A 2011 assessment from then-vicar general Fr. Kevin McDonough stated there was no need to alert parish employees of previous allegations -- among them, a 2004 report that he approached in a bookstore two males (ages 19 and 20) for sex, and in 2006, was found by police in an area of a park known as a sexual hangout -- because Wehmeyer was “not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by 'playing with fire.' This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace.”

An April 2014 report from an independent task force, appointed by the archdiocese following the scandal’s outbreak, found that despite the priest displaying problematic sexual behavior in the past, his case never went before the Clergy Review Board, nor was it informed that he had camped with children during the 2009 and 2010 summers.

In June 2012, a mother and employee at Blessed Sacrament parish, where Wehmeyer was pastor, informed the archdiocese that her two boys had accused Wehmeyer of providing them alcohol and tobacco and that he had inappropriately touched them.

Questions arose about the timeline of when the archdiocese reported the allegation to police. In January 2014, the Ramsey County prosecutor determined that the archdiocese did not violate mandatory reporting laws, which require it filed within 24 hours of receiving an allegation, in the Wehmeyer case.

In a statement Wednesday, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the archdiocese’s “recklessness and callousness” in the Wehmeyer case as “among the most egregious that we’ve seen in the past decade.”

‘This move is a decades-late drop in the bucket. When church officials defrock predator priests, it's less about safeguarding kids. It's more about church damage control. Still, we are grateful that Wehmeyer has been ousted from the priesthood. Without that Roman collar and the respect that accompanies it, he will find it a bit harder to win the trust of parents, gain access to kids, and sexually assault them after he is released from prison,” said Frank Meuers of the SNAP Minnesota chapter.

The group argued that church officials’ duty to protect communities from abusive priests does not end once a priest is no longer a priest.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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