Settlement reached in St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese civil case

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese will be subject to judicial oversight by local authorities for the next three years to certify compliance with a series of provisions aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse, under the terms of a new civil settlement announced Friday.

The agreement, presented in district court by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office and the archdiocese, concludes the civil aspect of charges Attorney John Choi brought this summer against the local church; the criminal case, which includes six misdemeanor charges each carrying $3,000 fines, is ongoing, Choi said during a press conference.

But he emphasized several times the importance of the "unprecedented and landmark civil settlement," which he said goes beyond the impositions that a court could have enacted under child protection laws. The agreement establishes two independent audits in 2017 and 2018 to ensure compliance; if the archdiocese is found noncompliant, it will an opportunity to correct deficiencies before the matter proceeds to the courts. At the end of the agreement, the attorney’s office agrees to dismiss the civil action.

With the archdiocese having filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, the agreement must be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which the archdiocese said could come at a hearing early next year. 

A central part of the agreement, Choi said, is that all allegations of misconduct, including child sexual abuse, will be directed toward a predominantly lay Ministerial Review Board, rather than leave decision-making under the purview of one or two clergy members.In addition, the archdiocese must alert law enforcement to the location of any priest with a substantiated or pending credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. Should a criminal investigation end without prosecution, the archdiocese must then conduct an independent review to determine his fitness for ministry.

Choi said the provisions represent a systemic change to how the archdiocese protects children and responds to abuse allegations, and that it aims to increase lay involvement in decision-making regarding clergy sexual abuse or misconduct.

"With these standards, no longer will it be possible for its leaders to assert that they did not know about suspected child abuse," Choi said.

Both the attorney and Archbishop Bernard Hebda, apostolic administrator of the Twin Cities church, said the two sides held the same goal of securing safe places for children. Hebda added that while much of the agreement spells out in-process measures, it legally locks in the actions.

"We are agreeing to implement the plan under a set deadline and to be held accountable for that commitment," he said in a letter to area Catholics.

Jennifer Haselberger, the former canonical chancellor whose exposure of mishandled allegations launched the area’s clergy abuse scandal two years ago, agreed that enforcement aspect stood out as the crucial piece in the agreement and that other elements mainly repeat past promises of the archdiocese, including those it agreed to in an October 2014 settlement with victims' attorney Jeff Anderson.

"I think that's the key. Obviously the church is not unfamiliar with having safe environments," she told NCR.

Haselberger could not recall other instances in the U.S. where a civil authority could exercise oversight to this extent. A 2012 deal reached by Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn and a Clay County judge, to avoid a charge of failing to report suspected child abuse, only held the bishop to regular meetings with the county prosecutor. Haselberger opined the Twin Cities agreement could become a new standard, or at least make it difficult for other dioceses not to allow similar audit procedures.

Still, she said weaknesses exist in that the agreement, addressed to the chancery corporation, does not appear to extend to parishes and schools, which are separately incorporated under state law. As a result, the archdiocese can only make requests of action, she said. And while the agreement requires the archdiocese to disclose to the Ramsey County attorney’s office the means and qualifications of members of its review board, that information remains concealed from the larger public.

In June, Ramsey County prosecutor John Choi brought the civil petition and criminal charges against the archdiocese "for its failure to protect children," in particular regarding the case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. Ten days later, Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche both resigned.

The civil petition alleged that the archdiocese "encouraged, caused, or contributed to the need for services for or protection of children sexually abused" by Wehmeyer, currently serving a five-year prison sentence. In the petition, the attorney's office said the archdiocese “had ample warning” that Wehmeyer “presented a risk of harm."  Among the instances it cited were the decision, under Archbishop Harry Flynn, to admit Wehmeyer to the seminary despite concerns from a vocation director, and numerous inappropriate encounters between the priest and young males.  

The petition connected to the criminal charges relating to three alleged victims of sexual abuse by Wehmeyer. The criminal charges included three counts of contributing to their need for protection or services and three counts of contributing to their delinquency or status as juvenile petty officers.

More: "Wehmeyer pleads guilty in Wisconsin" (Aug. 20, 2015)

Since the fall of 2013, the Catholic community in St. Paul-Minneapolis has witnessed an unraveling clergy abuse scandal, one ignited in part by Haselberger, including revelations about the handling of Wehmeyer. Since then, a steady series of investigations, resignations, reports, court hearings and press conferences have followed.

At the beginning of 2015, the Twin Cities archdiocese became the 12th U.S. diocese since 2004 to file for bankruptcy due to sexual abuse scandals (nearby Duluth, Minn., became the 13th earlier in December). In the filing the archdiocese listed liabilities between $50 million and $100 million, assets between $10 million and $50 million, and estimated creditors between 200 and 1,000.

In its fiscal year 2015 financial report -- the first since the bankruptcy reorganization -- the archdiocese in mid-November reported net assets of roughly $26 million, a 20 percent decrease from the previous year, and total cash and investments of $16.4 million, a 15 percent drop from fiscal year 2014. At the same time, operating expenses decreased 25 percent to $22.9 million, and operating revenues fell from $25.5 million to $22.4 million. The archdiocesan chancery and archbishop’s residence are up for sale, along with three other properties.

In addition, the final report listed 416 sexual abuse claims were filed ahead of the Aug. 3 deadline. The archdiocese again listed $4.6 million in litigation reserve, stating it remains unable to estimate its liability related to the claims. It also incurred more than $5 million in costs associated with the bankruptcy process and civil and criminal claims (referred to as "Special Issues expenses"), largely it said on the back of legal fees both for itself as well for those involved in the bankruptcy, as required by law.

"We clearly recognize that we cannot sustain this level of spending for Special Issues indefinitely and that is why it is imperative that we negotiate a fair and just resolution to this Reorganization in the near term," Thomas Mertens, chief financial officer for the archdiocese, wrote in the report.

In a letter accompanying the report, Hebda said it is apparent from the finance statements as well as feedback from parishioners that the Twin Cities' next archbishop will need to "have the shrewdness of an administrator” in addition to the pastoral heart Pope Francis has largely sought.

"Being a good steward is part of being a good shepherd," he said.

The archdiocese bankruptcy remains in mediation, with the next session set for January.

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

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