Criminal charges dropped against Twin Cities archdiocese after it admits wrongdoing in abuse case

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Updated at 6:00 p.m., central

Criminal charges against the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese were dropped Wednesday after it agreed to a revision of its civil settlement that added "direct and public admission of wrongdoing" for its role in the sexual abuse of three minors by a former priest.

The charges, brought last summer by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, alleged a "failure to protect children" on the part of the archdiocese in relation to three minors sexually abused in 2010 by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. In court Wednesday, Ramsey County District Judge Teresa Warner accepted an amendment to the civil agreement, originally reached in December, that added several new requirements and also inserted an admission of wrongdoing.

"It was not only Curtis Wehmeyer who harmed children. It was the archdiocese, as well," Choi said at a midday news conference. "Today, through the leadership of the new, permanent archbishop, Bernard Hebda, that direct and public admission of wrongdoing has now been made."

The record for the civil case will be amended to state:

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Curtis Wehmeyer was a priest in this Archdiocese. The Archdiocese admits that it failed to adequately respond and prevent the sexual abuse of Victim 1, Victim 2, and Victim 3. The Archdiocese failed to keep the safety and wellbeing of these three children ahead of protecting the interests of Curtis Wehmeyer and the Archdiocese. The actions and omissions of the Archdiocese failed to prevent the abuse that resulted in the need for protection and services for these three children.

Choi said such an admission of wrongdoing was the "missing piece" in the civil settlement, and that with its securing, the goals of the legal action brought last June -- hold the archdiocese accountable; achieve justice for the victims and the community; and take all necessary steps to ensure such archdiocesan failures never reoccur -- have all been realized.

"From the very beginning, it has been our position that the archdiocese must directly admit fault and wrongdoing in its role in failing to protect the victims of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. Without such an admission by the archdiocese, or a determination by a court, there could never be true accountability," he said.

Choi added that he had recently visited with the victims' family, saying that upon hearing the admission read to them "were moved and satisfied that justice had been done." 

"They wholeheartedly supported this moment and how this is being resolved. It was exactly what they wanted," he said. 

Choi later indicated the family was among the 400-plus claimants in the archdiocese's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings

At a separate press conference, Hebda said the expanded civil agreement "holds the archdiocese accountable and ensures that our actions will continue to match our words."

"Today, we humbly acknowledge our past failures and look forward to continuing down that path to achieve those vital, common goals that together we all share. To victims and survivors, the faithful and the entire community, we pledge to move forward openly, collaboratively and humbly, always mindful of our past. We will never forget," Hebda said.

The admission was confirmed during the first progress report for the settlement agreement. In court Wednesday morning, Hebda reported that the archdiocese received three allegations of sexual abuse by a priest in the past six months. At the press conference, Tim O'Malley, director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environments, said that in each case, the priest was removed from ministry and the public notified the same day. The standard operating procedure, he added, is to notify police immediately upon receiving an allegation and deferring to their directions, and then to make the accusation public as soon as possible. 

"We are going to err on the side of protecting children rather than protecting the priest, who honestly may not have done it. May not have done it. But in any event, we’re going to make sure people know who that is and what the accusation is," O'Malley said. 

The criminal charges' arrival on June 5, 2015, were followed 10 days later with the twin resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche. Hebda, first appointed apostolic administrator at that time, was installed as archbishop in May.

In addition to the admission, the amended agreement will add several new conditions:

  • extend the window of court oversight of the archdiocese one year, now until February 2020;
  • allow the Ramsey County attorney to appoint a member of the 12-person archdiocesan Ministerial Review Board, with Choi selecting Patty Wetterling, a child safety advocate and past chair of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children;
  • require Hebda to participate in at least three restorative justice sessions convened and determined by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office;
  • strengthen the role of the Director of Safe Environments, currently held by O'Malley, a former judge;
  • bar the archdiocese from entering into confidentiality agreements in future abuse cases, unless requested by the alleged victim, and release any past alleged victim from such agreements within 30 days;
  • ensure ongoing counseling services for the three victims and their family, as necessary, and if not satisfied through bankruptcy proceedings. 

Choi said that if the archdiocese fails to uphold the terms of the revised agreement further legal action could take place.

The attorney described the settlement as "unprecedented," and said it should serve as a model for child protection protocols in dioceses nationwide. He stressed, as he did in December, that the provisions in the settlement exceeded what would have been possible through a criminal court due to constitutional limitations, and should be seen for the archdiocese as "a sign of their good faith." The now-dismissed criminal charges, six misdemeanors in all, together would have added up to a total of $18,000 in fines.

Asked why his office did not file criminal charges against individuals cited in the criminal complaint, Choi said "there just wasn't sufficient evidence to point to one particular person," whereas the pieces of information together allowed for a case against the archdiocesan corporation. He added it would be unethical to bring charges absent confidence the evidence could prove an individual's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The county attorney explained that his office strategically brought the criminal charges and civil petition in tandem "because we wanted to have an outcome that was good. Good for the public and to ensure that justice was done for the victims and to ensure that accountability was achieved."

Speaking at his own press conference Wednesday afternoon, victims' attorney Jeff Anderson, who is based in St. Paul, praised the new expanded settlement as "a giant step forward," noting that it reflected the wishes of the abuse survivors' family. 

Jennifer Haselberger, the former canonical chancellor who raised numerous red flags about the archdiocese's mishandling of abuse cases, said in a statement on her website that the amended settlement "brings to conclusion a process that I began in June of 2012," shortly after the archdiocese learned of the Wehmeyer abuse. While she labeled the agreement "a positive result" that met her objectives when she first came forward about her concerns (she ultimately resigned her post in April 2013), she noted the criminal case conclusion "does not mean that all is well within the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis." 

"The failures acknowledged in today's admission of guilt are systemic, pervasive, and longstanding. It is beyond the power of any civil authority to bring about the changes that are required in order to truly create a safe environment in the Catholic Church," she said, adding that all must continue to be vigilant and to work for justice. 

In a statement, David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, criticized the deal, saying Choi "should and could have filed criminal charges against individual complicit Catholic officials."

"Wrongdoing is deterred when wrongdoers are punished. But not one Twin Cities Catholic official is being punished – in the courts or in the church – for repeatedly deceiving parishioners, moving predators, hiding evidence, stone-walling police or endangering kids," Clohessy said. 

The closing of the criminal case will open the legal files exchanged between the archdiocese and Ramsey County Attorney's Office. The disclosure came Wednesday afternoon, with documents providing further insights into Nienstedt's relationship with Wehmeyer and how the archdiocese handled the investigation into allegations regarding sexual misconduct by the former head of the Twin Cities church. 

The next compliance hearing for the archdiocese is set for Dec. 20.

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

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