Twin Cities task force reports 'serious shortcomings' in archdiocesan policies

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Too much power in too few hands. Inadequate oversight. Broken communication channels and compartmentalized information. An outdated record-keeping system, and no meaningful program to audit and monitor compliance.

Those "serious shortcomings" emerged from a lay task force's six-month independent review of the policies and organizational structures within the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese related to the prevention of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

"The work of the Task Force revealed that, despite Archdiocesan policies and procedures designed to protect against clergy sexual abuse of minors, a flawed organizational structure with little oversight and accountability created opportunities for some priests to harm children," the seven-member Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force said in its 53-page report, released Monday.

Formed in October in response to accusations of mishandled abuse allegations by the archdiocese, the task force said that too much decision-making power regarding abuse allegations rested in one or two individuals who were not subject to monitoring themselves. The task force found communication "inadequate and, at times, non-existent" among the archdiocese, lay Catholics, the media and victims.

Pertinent information was also often restricted from decision-makers and relevant boards, and record-keeping and polices related to compliance and reporting were outdated, the report said.

Among the task force's recommendations:

  • Return to a single Clergy Review Board composed of mainly lay members outside archdiocesan offices that receives and reviews all allegations of clergy misconduct (in September 2013, the archdiocese had created a second board, the Ministerial Standards Board, to handle offenses unrelated to sexual abuse);
  • Appoint a layperson as the delegate for safe environment who is responsible for managing the archdiocese's response to all clergy misconduct and its youth protection efforts;
  • Create a comprehensive auditing and monitoring program to ensure an effective safe environment program;
  • Implement more effective record-keeping procedures to allow centralized access to information;
  • Strengthen and expand the mechanisms to receive complaints of clergy sexual abuse and implement an anti-retaliation policy to protect reporters;
  • Strengthen and include lay faculty in the candidate selection process at St. Paul Seminary;
  • Enhance the "essential three" components of safe environment: clergy background checks at least every six years, expanded training, and updated codes of conduct.

In addition, it urged the archdiocese "to foster a culture that places victims first, as well as a culture that welcomes sincere inquiry and criticism, and seeks input from laypeople."

"The recommendations made in this Report will not be realized if they are not supported by the prevailing culture and values within the Archdiocese," the task force said, a responsibility it said rested with Archbishop John Nienstedt and his leadership team.

In a statement, Nienstedt pledged to accept the recommendations and work toward their implementation with Dominican Fr. Reginald Whitt, the vicar for ministerial standards who appointed the task force. In an email, Whitt told NCR he is studying the report and is unavailable for interviews until after Easter.

In its own statement, the task force said the report "stands on its own" and declined press inquiries.

The task force omitted from the scope of its investigation a review of specific abuse cases, but did examine the case of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, currently serving a five-year prison sentence for criminal sexual conduct and possessing child pornography. It found that despite the priest displaying problematic sexual behavior between May 2004 and September 2009 and being placed on a monitoring program, no one alerted the promoter for ministerial standards or Clergy Review Board that Wehmeyer had camped with boys during the 2009 and 2010 summers. Additionally, his case never went before the review board.

"Wehmeyer's case illustrates structural deficiencies in the Archdiocese Safe Environment program and problems with the implementation of Archdiocesan policies," the report said. It noted that while training appeared successful in triggering reports from lay and clergy "of what they viewed as 'red flag' behavior by Wehmeyer, unfortunately those reports were not handled well by Archdiocesan officials, causing a delay that may have allowed further abuse to occur."

The task force held 23 meetings, examined thousands of pages of documents and interviewed 32 people, including Nienstedt and retired Archbishop Harry Flynn. Only two people declined to participate: Fr. Kevin McDonough, the former vicar general and delegate for safe environment involved in several of the abuse cases highlighted in media reports; and Jennifer Haselberger, the former chancellor for canonical affairs whose decision to alert the media and local authorities of mismanagement she observed set off the abuse scandal.

According to the report, the task force was told that Fr. Peter Laird, former vicar general who resigned in October, was on leave without contact information, only to find out upon completing its work that he had requested a meeting two weeks earlier.

Haselberger told NCR she was hesitant to get involved in an investigation she viewed as having little chance of achieving legitimacy.

"I think it was obvious to everyone even before the release of this report that we cannot look to the archdiocese for a solution to this problem," she said. "Instead we all have to pray that the Holy See will intervene, and if not, that the police, prosecutors, and courts are able to compel the necessary actions."

Rather than speak to the task force, Haselberger directed them to countless memos she wrote during her five-year tenure outlining the problems as they happened. But she said she saw little in the report to indicate they retained the memos, and internal communications from her former office were not listed among the reviewed documents.

"Let's not have a revisionist telling of what we did," Haselberger said. "Let's look at what was actually happening at the time. And those memos, emails, internal communications, letters, summaries, opinions are the best key to what was taking place."

As for the recommendations, Haselberger said she didn't think they'd have much effect, partially because of inaccuracies she saw within the report.

For instance, the report appeared to reference McDonough, though it did not name him, in its discussion of individuals holding too much power. It wrote:

"The functions of the Vicar General and the Delegate are both distinct and demanding, and should not be held by the same person. Additionally, the Task Force found that both positions had been held too long by the same official; that he was allowed to exercise too much discretion in the handling of cases without oversight or review by the Clergy Review Board."

However, McDonough's tenure as vicar general (1991-2008) would have only briefly intersected with his time as delegate for safe environment, which he first held in 2008 and until last August.

Haselberger also worried that a return to a single clergy review board, as in place during the mishandled cases of Wehmeyer and Fr. Robert Shelley, would take away clarity from its purpose of preventing abuse of minors. That version of the board, though, had less authority and could only review cases handed to it from the archbishop.

Haselberger challenged the conclusion that the archdiocese lacked procedures to identify lapses in procedure, but rather lacked a desire from decision-makers to act on them.

 "We clearly identified all of the problems. I mean, I spent years of my life tearing out my hair writing memos about this: These are the problems, these are the problems with the review board, these are the problems with records management," she said.

Asked what she would have liked the task force to address more, Haselberger responded, "I would have liked them to conclude that all of these issues were already identified, and instead look into why they weren't addressed, and who was responsible for those decisions."

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

A version of this story appeared in the April 25-May 8, 2014 print issue under the headline: Task force reports 'serious shortcomings'.

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