Charges brought against Twin Cities archdiocese for failing to protect children

Updated at 5:00 p.m., central time

The Ramsey County prosecutor has brought multiple criminal charges against the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese "for its failure to protect children" in relation to former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced at a midday press conference Friday six charges related to three victims of sexual abuse linked to Wehmeyer, who is in jail serving a five-year sentence after he pleaded guilty in November 2012 to three felony counts of criminal sexual misconduct with two minors and 17 felony counts of possession of child pornography.

The charges -- all gross misdemeanors with possible fines, according to reports out of the press conference -- include three counts of contributing to the need for protection or services and three counts of contributing to status as a juvenile petty offender or delinquency. In addition, Choi brought a civil petition against the archdiocese alleging that because of conduct related to the criminal charges, the archdiocese contributed to the need for protection or services of children.

The county attorney told local media that at this stage, there is not currently sufficient evidence to bring charges against individual church officials.

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"Today, we are alleging a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis over the course of decades," Choi said in a statement.

He said from the time Wehmeyer entered the seminary in 1997 until his removal from the priesthood in March, the archdiocese failed to "responsibly and meaningfully respond to numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct."

"It was not only Curtis Wehmeyer who harmed children, but it was the Archdiocese as well," Choi said.

In a brief statement Friday afternoon, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens acknowledged the charges, and said, "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 auxiliary bishop said. 

The archdiocese has been embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal since fall 2013, mostly because of accusations of mishandled allegations. In January, it filed for bankruptcy, and shortly after, entered mediation with its insurers and individuals who had brought lawsuits claiming sexual abuse. In April, the bankruptcy court placed an Aug. 3 deadline to bring forth claims of sexual abuse, moving up the deadline set by the Minnesota Child Victims Act by nine months.

In his own statement, attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents nine of the 20 largest creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings, said Choi and his office "deserve high praise" for their careful investigation that led to the charges. He noted in the past he has been critical of them for inaction in not charging church officials in the Wehmeyer and other cases, but said their findings bring "great comfort" to abuse survivors and their families. 

"Naming the Archdiocese as a corporation implicates the wrongdoing and the failure to protect children by all of the top officials, past and present, and the scope of this demonstrates a serious systemic problem that, now, law enforcement has chosen to address in a definitive way," Anderson said. 

During the press conference, Choi discussed a 2010 incident in which a priest told Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche that Wehmeyer had shared a bed with a boy, one of the victims in the case, on a camping trip.

The charges brought Friday stem from a second phase of an investigation that began in October 2013, shortly after Minnesota Public Radio began an extensive series of reports -- largely based on documents provided by former chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer Haselberger -- detailing that the archdiocese did not immediately report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities.

Investigators with the attorney's office and St. Paul Police Department have so far conducted more than 50 interviews with witnesses and reviewed 170,000 pages of documents provided by several sources, the attorney's office said. The investigation remains ongoing.

The first phase closed in January 2014, when Choi said he would not pursue criminal charges against the archdiocese in regard to the mandatory reporting window in the Wehmeyer case. While there were questions whether the archdiocese reported allegations it received from the mother of two boys at Blessed Sacrament Parish, where Wehmeyer was pastor, within the required 24-hour period, Choi determined his office could not prove that any archdiocesan official violated the law.

Shortly after that news conference, MPR News produced a document labeled "decree" from Archbishop John Nienstedt that said the archdiocese received the complaint on June 18, 2012 -- two days before a deacon contacted the police.

The Ramsey County attorney's office said it began the second phase two months later based on facts uncovered during the first phase.

Haselberger told NCR that Friday's charges were "the result that I both hoped for and feared when I originally shared my knowledge of the Wehmeyer situation with civil authorities in June of 2012.

"While the extent of the archdiocese's knowledge was not known to me at the time, it was my strong feeling that it bore a significant share of the responsibility for the harm that had been caused to the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer," she said, adding that the news of the charges serves a challenge to the church to better demand accountability.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 19-July 2, 2015 print issue under the headline: Archdiocese faces criminal charges .

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