dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Dredging Wobegon.

In early December a judge ordered the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release its list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. Plaintiffs' attorneys received the names in a 2009 lawsuit, but the court sealed the list. The archdiocese long fought its release, but reversed course after Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported that for years bishops had failed to inform police about a priest who had admitted to molesting boys. Archbishop John Nienstedt made the list public on December 5. It included the names of thirty-three men. But last week MPR reported that the actual number of accused priests was seventy. "Some of the...men remain in ministry," according to MPR. "Others are long dead." They worked in nearly every parish in the archdiocese.

(The same judge also ordered the archdiocese to release the names of all priests accused of abuse--not just those "credibly accused"--by February 18. The archdiocese appealed the order on that date, and has until February 26 to provide answers to a judge's questions.)

The archdiocese disputes MPR's account. In a statement released the day after MPR published its report online, the archdiocese claimed that "the twenty-eight clergy members identified by MPR have not been publicly disclosed by the archdiocese because they do not, to date, constitute substantiated claims of sexual abuse of a minor." The statement continued: "At least sixteen of the twenty-eight clergy members identified by MPR were the subject of false, meritless or unsubstantiated accusations against them."

What about the other twelve? "Over ten" of them, the archdiocese claims, "are not from our archdiocese and the allegations against them concern alleged conduct that occurred outside of this archdiocese." Still, they worked in the Twin Cities. According to the statement, such priests "are subject to the authority of other orders and dioceses and...the archdiocese does not have sufficient information or even jurisdiction to determine whether those foreign claims are credible or have been substantiated."

The list of the thirty-three released by the archdiocese was originally compiled by then-Vicar General Fr. Kevin McDonough in response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' first sexual-abuse audit. So why did MPR find more than double that figure? The archdiocese, it turns out, had more than one list. "There were handwritten lists and e-mailed lists and memos about lists stored on computers and in filing cabinets at the chancery," according to MPR. Perhaps that's why in 2004 the archdiocese publicly acknowledged that it had received sixty-nine allegations over the previous fifty years, but two years later an internal memo obtained by MPR listed one hundred eighty victims. Obviously the record-keeping was a mess.

Apparently not all of it was accidental.

Jennifer Haselberger, Nienstedt's former top canonical adviser (he hired her in 2008; she resigned in protest last year), told MPR that church officials stopped keeping lists of accused priests because they worried the information would be discovered in lawsuits. She said McDonough was particularly concerned that victims' attorney Jeff Anderson would get hold of them. But in January 2013 McDonough denied that the archdiocese even had such lists: "We don't maintain lists," he told MPR. "We don't have a list anywhere."

That's a bizarre assertion because McDonough has publicly discussed the number of accused priests. In 2002, MPR points out, he told the Pioneer Press that over the past half-century fifteen archdiocesan priests had been credibly accused. And in 2004 the archdiocese acknowledged the thirty-three accused clerics. But in 2010 McDonough revised the total down. "There are about two dozen names of priests who've been credibly accused in the last sixty years of sexual abuse," he told MPR. (The archdiocese itself now acknowledges its "various lists.")

You might think that when your boss is in charge of the U.S. bishops' committee on sexual-abuse--as Archbishop Harry Flynn was in the early days of the scandal--and he's tasked you with handling allegations of molestation by priests, you'd make sure all your I's were dotted and T's crossed. But McDonough seems to have been strangely forgetful. In 2005, he wrote to Flynn about Fr. Kenneth LaVan: "It embarrasses me to acknowledge once again a lapse of memory on my own part. Although I had dealt with LaVan for many years about his boundary violations with adult females, I had forgotten that there were two allegations in the late 1980s concerning sexual involvement with teen-aged girls."

Five years later, when McDonough was the archdiocese's "delegate for safe environment," he wrote to a pastor and a deacon about two abusive priests in order to help them inform their parishioners of the crimes. "Fr. Clinton came to speak with me just after Easter about the tragic child abuse committed several decades ago," McDonough wrote. His letter was dated September 17, 2010. "I apologize for the long delay." McDonough informed the pastor and deacon that Fr. Louis Heitzer's "offenses against young people were cut short by his death at the age of fifty-five in 1969."

As part of her role as chancellor of canonical affairs, Haselberger went through the archdiocese's priest personnel files. She was shocked by what she found--both the haphazard record-keeping and the contents of the files. So she tried to persuade the archdiocese to start using tracking software called CaseMaster Complaint, a program used by several dioceses, but failed. As MPR reports, "lawyers and top chancery officials rejected the plan because they worried who would gain access to the sensitive information."

Her knowledge of those files also led her to object to a July 2012 statement claiming "no priests credibly accused of misconduct are currently in ministry in this archdiocese."

"I don't see how we can say that no priests credibly accused of misconduct serve in the archdiocese, even as background," she wrote to archdiocesan counsel, the vicar general, and communications staff. "That is simply not true." The lawyer replied curtly: "Your objection is duly noted for the record. We go with the statement, as we've done on multiple, earlier occasions, which [Vicar General Peter] Laird has approved." Three of the five people copied on the exchange remain in the archdiocese's communications shop.

In its most recent statement, the archdiocese explains how it determines whether an abuse allegation is "credible" or "substantiated."

Following the report made to appropriate law enforcement, the first step in our internal evaluation is to determine whether the claim is credible. A credible claim is one that is not manifestly false or frivolous. In other words, it is not blatantly false. Separate from our internal evaluation process, any claim whether credible or not, is immediately reported to police.

If the archdiocese determines that a credible claim exists, the archdiocese opens an investigation to determine whether a claim is substantiated. A substantiated claim is one for which sufficient evidence exists to establish reasonable grounds to believe that the alleged abuse occurred.

But how did the archdiocese go about categorizing the allegations? "As the legal stakes climbed," MPR reports, "McDonough demanded evidence that was nearly impossible to obtain. In one 2006 case, he rejected allegations from a man who couldn't produce copies of his medical records from the 1960s." In another case, MPR spoke with an alleged victim who claims a priest named Gerald Grieman molested him when he was a boy. When he contacted the archdiocese's victims' advocate in '06, he says, she asked him to turn over his psychological records. He wouldn't, and the archdiocese decided his claim was not credible, according to the accuser.

Was it the policy of the archdiocese to ask alleged victims for their medical and psychological records right off the bat--and why? The archdiocese did not respond to my request for comment.

Do other dioceses operate that way? "We don't do that here," according to John C. O'Malley, director of legal services for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Neither does the Archdiocese of New York: “We do not request victims/survivors to turn over their psychological records," Communications Director Joseph Zwilling told me. “At no point do we ask an alleged victim or a victim for their medical or psychological records," said Stefanie Gutierrez, press secretary for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

In June 2010, Nienstedt wrote to Bishop Robert Brom, then of San Diego, at Grieman's request, informing him that Grieman was a priest in good standing. Nienstedt acknowledged the allegation and said that civil authorities declined to prosecute, that an internal investigation found no substantiating evidence, and that the case was referred to the review board, "who saw no reason to restrict" Grieman's ministry. Haselberger told MPR that the case was not referred to the review board.

The archdiocese now claims that "allegations against Father Gerald Grieman, now retired, were reported to the New Brighton Police Department and determined to be without merit." It's true that the archdiocese notified authorities, but it's not quite right to say the allegations were determined to be meritless.

After the police were initially notified in 2006, they never contacted the claimaint because, according to the police repport, they had "no way to contact him." In 2013 the man brought his allegation to the police in person, and composed a detailed statement of his claims. But about ten days later the New Brighton Police referred the case to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office "due to an internal conflict with this agency." That conflict was not specificed in the report. Ramsey County declined to prosecute. It's not clear why. The criminal statute of limitations is nine years after the offense or three years after the offense is reported to law enforcement authorities, whichever is later. Since the alleged crime was first reported to the police in 2006, prosecutors may have thought their hands were tied. If so, that doesn't mean the allegations were "without merit."

And apparently Ramsey County has had second thoughts because it has re-opened the case.

But at this point, even though MPR has turned up documents the police have not seen, local civil authorities remain reluctant to seek search warrants or to subpoena the archdiocese's files. I asked Howie Padilla, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police, whether MPR's reporting changed the police chief's view that a search warrant was unnecessary. He referred me to a January interview in which the chief explained his position. "His answer to this remains the same," Padilla said. (The Ramsey County Attorney's office did not reply to my requests for comment.)

Of course that may change. Yesterday MPR ran a disturbing piece on the mother of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer's victims (yes, even though he has admitted to abusing kids, he has not yet been laicized), along with another story revealing that the archdiocese knew that one of its priests had searched online for the terms "free naked boy pictures," "blond boys sucking pics," and "preteen." The county prosecutor chose not to file charges against the priest because it said it lacked evidence that his computer contained child pornography. Whether the archdiocese will be charged with failing to report remains to be seen--the chancery is in another county. But it's clear from MPR's reporting that Nienstedt himself wasn't sure whether the pornographic images on that priest's computer depicted minors.

Both of those articles feature secret recordings of Nienstedt. You can bet MPR is nowhere near finished with him.

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Grant, I have zero tolerance for priests who commit these crimes or bishops and other officials who protect them, but your piece does raise at least one interesting question, it seems to me.  If a priest is reported to the appropriate authorities, police and prosecutors, and they for whatever reason determine they can't or won't prosecute, and I guess we'd have to assume that the priest in question had denied the allegations, at what point does the bishop say "that's good enough for me" and restore the priest to good standing?  I think most people assume that if the police investigate and the DA decides there isn't enough there to prosecute, in our system, the person is presumed innocent.  Saying the allegations were determined "meritless" may not be exactly the samething,but the intent isfairly clear,it seems to me. There have been so many instances where bishops did not do the right thing in this regard but in this one it seems at least with respect to reporting allegations to the proper authorities, the right thing was in fact done. 

Grant, thanks for this excellent reporting.  

Jim D, you're thinking along the same lines I am.  FWIW, here are my views regarding criminal law enforcement and internal church enforcement:

  • Criminal law and church law are complementary spheres
  • A sex abuse violation would be a violation in both spheres, and the miscreant should be prosecuted in both spheres
  • Officials in either or both spheres are capable of dropping the ball.  Criminal-law prosecutions are not always going to be the "magic bullet" that will make up for shortcomings in the prosecution of church law
  • Because criminal law and church law are not the same, we should not always expect the same outcome in both spheres for a given violation.  For example, whereas the statute of limitations, or inability to meet evidentiary thresholds, may constrain civil authorities from prosecuting, there is no statute of limitations under the Dallas Charter, and its evidentiary thresholds can be quite different.  Bottom line: the absence of a prosecution or a conviction in the civil sphere doesn't take church officials off the hook; they must still work through the processes called for in the Dallas Charter when an accusation is made
  • As citizens and as members of the Body of Christ, we must hold officials in both the civil and ecclesial spheres accountable for their respective duties to justice.  If police or prosecutors drop the ball, we must hold them accountable.  If church officials drop the ball, we must hold them accountable.  We must insist that officials do what they are supposed to do in both spheres

Just my views.

 

 

Jim P.

I would say I generally agree with the concept that criminal and church law are independent, and could have different outcomes, but I'm not sure it is quite so clearcut in reality.  I guess its one thing if the prosecution is dropped because of statute of limitations problems, but if its dropped for lack of evidence, that would certainly give me pause to question how much I actually could or should do as a bishop.  After all, presumably the police and prosecutors are trained in this kind of thing. 

Pope Francis thorniest problem will be dealing with these kind of prelates. Will he write letters recommending "retiring" or deal with it up front wiht public dismissal (unlikely!). He doubt that he wouldt live long enough to create all his own as JPII and Benedict together did,and the Church shuld not -cannot-- wait if his credibility and first year's magnetism is to yield some real change.

In criminal law, the standard for conviction is "beyond a reasonable doubt." There are also prescribed procedures for selecting jurors and for challenging any who may have preconceived notions about the case or ties of kinship, friendship, or common interest with either prosecution or defense. Those safeguards may not always be foolproof, but they are clearly spelled out and known to all.

What are the comparable provisions, if any, by which a diocese proceeds in these cases? In particular, would the Church remove a priest from mininstry on evidence it finds persuasive, even if the state declines to prosecute or fails to obtain a conviction? And is there any effort to assure that the people making the decisions will be truly independent and unbiased?

Regarding the keeping of lists of offenders:

I don't find it surprising that there are multiple versions of lists floating around.  This is common in any large organization, or even small organization, particularly for issues that evolve over a long period of time and for which there are many different hands involved.  Thus, I could see that HR might compile a list for its purposes, Legal might compile a list for its purposes, and Finance might compile a list for its purposes, and the three lists might not be identical, because they have different purposes.

On the other hand: my own experience in risk management (not for a diocese, and not for this type of liabililty) makes it difficult for me to believe that those charged with financial and risk management within the diocese haven't kept a comprehensive listing of each reported offense, together with an estimated liability.  I'd think the diocese would have difficulty purchasing professional liability insurance without such a list.

It's interesting that the diocese would intentionally avoid compiling a comprehensive list as a litigation-avoidance technique.  Of course, the lack of a single source of truth not only hamstrings plaintiffs' attorneys, but also potentially makes it more difficult for God's people to be fully informed. Still, even a diocese that genuinely wants to be transparent about this issue might pause at opening itself up to legal liability.  

It's also interesting that the judge wants even the names of non-credibly accused clergy released.  Had the diocese adequately demonstrated that its processes for determining the credibility of accusations are trustworthy, the diocese might have moral standing to object that releasing the names of those who are not credibly accused would needlessly smear the reputations of clergy who, to the dioceses' knowledge, have done nothing wrong.  I am not certain the diocese is completely in the wrong to resist the judge's order.

The diocese's objections about releasing the names or religious order and non-incardinated clergy may be more problematic.  Regardless of who the clergy "belongs to", the victim surely belongs to the diocese.  Nor is a diocese completely void of responsibility for religious order and non-incardinated clergy that are serving in a diocesan institution like a parish or school. 

 

Amazing how some are presuming here that because the police decide not to prosecute there is no evidence or no case. One of the distinctive differences nowadays about clergy transgressions is that some prosecutors are willing to proceed with cases against criminal priests. Prior to the pedophilia era police would refer matters to the Archbishop or Pastor who would maintain the "avoidance of scandal."  We know that many prosecutions are discretionary or discriminatory. Which benefit the rich and privileged clergy. 

 

Note also how the Archbishop lied and covered up. Does one do that when one has nothing to hide. We have to be more sophisticated about these things. As Jim P writes: "

  • As citizens and as members of the Body of Christ, we must hold officials in both the civil and ecclesial spheres accountable for their respective duties to justice.  If police or prosecutors drop the ball, we must hold them accountable.  If church officials drop the ball, we must hold them accountable.  We must insist that officials do what they are supposed to do in both spheres"

 

Following up on John Prior's questions:  What is the process by which a Bishop would be involved in the inquiy and the decision-making?   Is hewhat in secular law we would call a Finder of Fact?  Does he directly examine an accused, perhaps after some preliminary investigations by his staff?   Who has the burden of proof?   What protections does the accused have?   May he decline to answer questions, either directly from the Bishop or from the Bishop's subordinate staff at earlier stages?   Is there a vow of obedience that matters in such cases?   Is there a bright line between such inquiries and the priest-penitent reltionship of Reconcilation?   Areter sysemtic differece sin tese rgards btween diocesan priess an members of a religious order?

I apologize if all the Catholics in the dscussion alreay know the answers.

Mark L.

 

I wonder what happens in the secular world when an employee of a publoc company is accussed of this and for some reason the case doesn't go to trial.  Do they keep that person on, realizing that he may still actually be guilty of the acused crime, do they limit his job duties, do they (can they) suspend him, fire him?

Are you all saying you've never seen someone fired for misconduct just because there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute them, even with respect to behavior that was job related?  (You would likely act differently for alleged criminal misconduct that was not job related.)  Do you wait for a criminal conviction before you would fire someone you thought was stealing from the company till? 

You might convene an inquiry by a neutral into the situation, but I doubt you would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Probably more like clear and convincing evidence. 

The failure of reporting has clouded an essential fact in a lot of these cases: the failure to remove people from official duties that involved interaction with children.  Not reporting was bad; not reporting them and letting them continue to serve among children was reprehensible.  So if someone is not prosecuted or is acquitted, you might still prohibit them from serving among children if you decided that it was more likely than not they had done what they were accused of.  You would do that because being wrong in that situation risks irreparable harm, you can find a different position for most people, and a demotion isn't the same thing as threatening someone with jail time. 

 

No, that's my point, I guess ... that I don't think most secular businesses wouldn't tolerate employees that were possible pedophiles.  I got groped once in an elevator by a doc when I was working at a clinic and though it wasn't a crime, the administrators terminated his work there.

What Barbara wrote.

 

John P and Mark L - The answers to at least some of your questions are contained in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  It's not a very long read.  I am not an expert in this area, but my understanding is that the answers to your questions are fairly complicated.  Here are some factors:

  • Each diocese is to establish policies and procedures for investigating allegations, but few specifics are prescribed by the national conference. I can tell you that in my diocese (Chicago), there is an office whose job is to investigate allegations, and to coordinate closely with the independent review board in making recommendations to the cardinal.
  • Whatever procedures the diocese puts in place must harmonize with canon law
  • The Holy See, rather than the diocesan bishop, has jurisdiction over the disposition of clergy for whom there is evidence that sexual abuse took place, so after the investigation, if the evidence warrants it, the bishop must remove the cleric from ministry and then hand off the case to Rome

Here is what the Essential Norms for Diocesan/ Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons stipulate (the Essential Norms have the force of church law so all dioceses must comply with them):

6. When an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon is received, a preliminary investigation in accordance with canon law will be initiated and conducted promptly and objectively (CIC, c. 1717; CCEO, c. 1468). During the investigation the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence, and all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect his reputation. The accused will be encouraged to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel and will be promptly notified of the results of the investigation. When there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith shall be notified.  The bishop/eparch shall then apply the precautionary measures mentioned in CIC, canon 1722, or CCEO, canon 1473—i.e., withdraw the accused from exercising the sacred ministry or any ecclesiastical office or function, impose or prohibit residence in a given place or territory, and prohibit public participation in the Most Holy Eucharist pending the outcome of the process.4 

 

The same judge also ordered the archdiocese to release the names of all priests accused of abuse--not just those "credibly accused"--by February 18.

That's what happens when you distort the definition of "credible". Now all the priests will see their name published as though they were possibly abusers, even the ones against which the accusation received was blatantly not credible. Once again the misplaced attempt to protect them has backfired.

Thank you, Jim Pauwels.

Granting that I am not, and was not educated and trained to be a bishop, still - confronted with decision-making that would affect both the charged  and the injured parties (and possibly furure innocents), and also the welfare of my assigned diocese - I would be inclined to directy ask an accused child molester to explain himself.  As the jury and judge in a secular process would do, or as may father would have done when I was suspected of some misdemeanor.  Not in search of a confession (legal sense), butto make a judgment about reliability and potential status to remaiin good standing with the community.  I do not recall having read anywhere whether this was universal, ordinary, or infrequent.

Mark L.

 Refusing to turn over names of accused priests, leaves it to in house investigation and a settlement outside of criminal jurisdiction, thereby preventing  possible conviction and being labeled a sex offender with the civil strictures that brings, thereby endangering others even if laicised.

jsk - according to the norms I referenced above, the church must turn over allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy to civil authorities.  Not doing so violates both civil and church law.

 

Mark - in the old days, I'd think it would have been normal for a credibly accused cleric to be, quite literally, called on the carpet.  Whether it still happens as frequently today, I don't know, but I'd think it's not infrequent.  

A personal relationship between a priest and his bishop could be problematic for justice.  I suppose in the civil arena, a judge would recuse himself if he's a friend of the accused.  There may be some wisdom in having cases handled by the Holy See rather than the bishop.

Maybe Grant can help us out with chapter and verse. But I wonder how this discussion took the turn to only concern itself with priests who were credibly charged. Hassenberger was quoted above as saying that the diocese was still harboring credibly accused priests. NCR in an editrorial released minutes ago made the point that many critics pounced on the UN report because it went beyond the pedophilia accusations. NCR points out that the Pope should not be deterred on that account from taking action against the continuing pedophilia coverup  The editorial alluded to similar cases that Grant brought up in this thread. http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/francis-must-act-faster-abuse-i...

Thank you Grant for being so committed to getting information out about sexual abuse cover-ups in the church. You're thorough and you don't give up. Thank you!

Yes, I second what Claire says.  God bless you.  The children and the Church need journalists who are willing to speak out fairly.