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The prosecution rests.

Last Wednesday, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced that he would not charge Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis officials with failing to report suspected child abuse in the case of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer. (He's still investigating several others.) In November 2012, Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct and seventeen counts of possession of child pornography. He's serving a five-year prison term. Civil authorities began investigating after Minnesota Public Radio reported that the archdiocese had known about Wehmeyer's sexual misbehavior for years, failed to inform his parish staff, and left him in ministry--with disastrous results. (In another case, Washington County prosecutors announced that they would not charge a priest with possession of child pornography--more on that later in the week.)

Minnesota law requires a priest to notify the police when he suspects child abuse--within twenty-four hours, unless he acquires the information during confession or spiritual counseling. The archdiocese claims it received an allegation against Wehmeyer on June 19, 2012, and reported it to police the following day. "It is our belief," Choi explained at last week's press conference, "that a criminal jury would conclude that members of the archdiocese did not fail to comply with the mandatory reporting law in this case." At the same event, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith claimed officers lacked probable cause for a subpoena or a warrant to search archdiocesan files. Hours later, MPR published a document signed by Archbishop John Nienstedt indicating that the archdiocese had received the allegation on June 18--two days before the archdiocese reported it to the police.

That document is the decree that formally began the canonical investigation into Wehmeyer. After MPR showed it to Choi and his staff, they said they'd never heard of it. St. Paul Police spokesman Howie Padilla told MPR that he also didn't know about the decree. Which is strange, because Jennifer Haselberger, Nienstedt's former top canonical adviser, said that in November she informed police about the document and where they could get a copy (from the chancery, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or Wehmeyer himself). Archdiocesan chancellor Joe Kueppers, according to MPR, explained that the police had just asked for copies of the documents obtained by the radio station. Choi has asked St. Paul police to tell him why Nienstedt's decree was not included in the case files, and Padilla said that in light of this new information, the police could reopen the investigation.

How the police missed this remains mysterious. But then again, the case itself features several puzzling details. In a memo released by Ramsey County last week, Criminal Division Director Richard Dusterhoft explained why prosecutors decided not to charge anyone in the archdiocese with failing to report suspected child abuse.

According to Dusterhoft, the police investigation turned up the following: On June 5, 2012, the mother of one of Wehmeyer's victims told her priest, Fr. John Paul Erickson, that she thought one of her sons had sexually assaulted his sister. She shared this in confession (in a "confessional," according to a police report). Erickson, the memo says, advised her to call the police. Later that day, a relative of the mother--who had worked in law enforcement--spoke with the son. The relative suspected that the son had been molested because young victims sometimes re-enact the abuse they suffer. The boy eventually "disclosed [to the relative] abuse perpetrated on the child by Curtis Wehmeyer." Subsequently--"again in confession"--the mother talked to Erickson about these new details, "but (according to the parent) used 'confession' to protect that priest." She "gave him permission to contact the archdiocese with this information [about the abuse]." The mother recalled that she contacted Greta Sawyer, director of archdiocesan Advocacy and Victim Assistance, about the allegation on June 18, and scheduled a meeting with her the following day. But Sawyer told police that she was not contacted until June 19, and her "report of that meeting is dated June 20, 2012, and indicates that her meeting...occurred on the same day."

Because "it is clear that [Erickson] received that information during confession," and because there's no evidence that Sawyer "had information that would rise to the level of the 'knowing or having reason to believe' standard required to trigger the reporting requirement" prior to meeting with the mother and her son, Dusterhoft concludes, "it is clear that the archdiocese reported the abuse withtin twenty-four hours of receiving the abuse information directly" from the child.

Is any of that really so clear? Dusterhoft acknowledges that the mother "used 'confession' to protect" Erickson. Doesn't that mean that she was not being completely truthful about the nature of her conversations with the priest, and wouldn't that warrant further investigation?

Look at MPR's timeline of the Wehmeyer case. Apparently not all her conversations with Erickson about her son took place in a confessional. On June 7, 2012, she phoned Erickson to tell him that her son alleged Wehmeyer had abused him. Erickson said he would have to report it to the archdiocese. A week later the mother called Erickson again with more details about the alleged abuse. That's the conversation, according to a civil suit being brought by the mother against Wehmeyer and the archdiocese, in which Erickson told her "that either she make the police report" or the archdiocese would--and she asked him to have the archdiocese contact the police. (The Dusterhoft memo also says that "the parent gave the priest permission to contact the archdiocese with this information.")

The Catholic Church does not allow the sacrament of confession to take place by phone or over the internet. And priests are trained to take such conversations outside the context of the sacrament.

After the Nienstedt decree came to light, the archdiocese issued a statement claiming that none of its representatives "became aware of the specific allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by Wehmeyer" until the morning of June 19, but that "information was provided to a priest of the archdiocese in the context of a pastoral relationship, which is considered privileged communication under Minnesota law." (The archdiocese's statement does not include the word "confession.") According to the archdiocese, it persuaded the mother to waive that "privilege" on the afternoon of June 20, 2012.

The Catholic Church forbids priests from breaking the seal of confession. But there is no "seal of the pastoral relationship." If I go to my pastor for spiritual advice, and in the course of our conversation I mention that I have a bunch of kids tied up in my basement, and he shares that information with the police, he hasn't broken canon law. Besides, the mother's lawsuit claims that on June 15, 2012, she asked Erickson to have the archdiocese call the police. Why would she have to "waive" that "privilege" again later? Still, the archdiocese claims, "this [waiver] then allowed the archdiocese to make a formal report to police the same afternoon."

But even that assertion is hard to verify, because, as Dusterhoft's memo notes, the "formal report" alleged by the archdiocese seems to be mentioned in (or is itself?) an e-mail exchange between Deacon John Vomastek, director of the Office of Clergy Services, and Axel Henry of the St. Paul Police Department. "Axe," Vomastek wrote in an e-mail sent Wednesday, June 20, 2012, at 6 p.m., "I don't have a lot." He named the "suspect," then wrote, "He is also the one that says he is the victim of what we talked about today." He continued, "Can you let me know if you have the original case of a few weeks ago when I called and if you need any help from our end?" Is that another case? The extant e-mails are unclear. The following day Vomastek e-mailed Henry with the mother's cell-phone number, and Henry replied, "We have NO reports with the names provided." Is that a response to Vomastek's reference to "the original case of a few weeks ago"? Or is he talking about Wehmeyer? Of course, "a few weeks ago" would be well before the archdiocese says it made its "formal report" to the police. Presumably the archdiocese would be eager to produce evidence showing that one of its representatives reported abuse earlier than is now alleged. So what happened? It's hard to say, without seeing more archdiocesan files. That's something the Ramsey County attorney might want to look into.

As for Nienstedt's decree affirming that the archdiocese received the allegation on June 18, 2012, the archdiocese now says that was an error reflecting the perception of the person who drafted it: Jennifer Haselberger, the archbishop's former top canonical adviser.

"I did write the decree," Haselberger told me. "And the archbishop signed it, because the 18th was when I was informed that an allegation had been made against Fr. Wehmeyer." Sawyer, the archdiocese's victim-assistance director, may be correct about when she met with the mother of the victim (June 20, 2012). But that doesn't mean that she was the first and only archdiocesan representative to learn of this allegation. After all, the Wehmeyer scandal was unfolding just days before Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia was convicted of child endangerment (a conviction that would be overturned later). That case had focused the minds of every chancery staffer in the country. A new allegation about recent abuse involving a priest with a history of sexual compulsions would set off more than a few alarms. So presumably the decree Haselberger drafted for Nienstedt and Sawyer's report weren't the only documents produced by archdiocesan staff responding to such a disturbing accusation.

That, too, is something Ramsey County Attorney John Choi may want to explore. Perhaps he might suggest to St. Paul police officers that documents already in the public domain don't need to be sought from parties under investigation. Or that mandatory-reporting cases turn on the timing of the reporter's knowledge of suspected abuse, which is difficult to establish without documentary evidence, something Catholic dioceses are known for producing in great volume. Or that when a former adviser to a party under investigation tells you that said party knew of a child-abuse allegation for at least forty-eight hours before it was reported to police, and gives you three ways to procure a document supporting that claim, you follow up.

Just some suggestions for John Choi, as he prepares to run for re-election.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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It's a complicated story.  I found the MPR timeline slide deck to which Grant linked to be very helpful in order to understand who did what, when.

There were at least three people - the mother of the victims, the maintenance employee, and Fr. Erickson - who, by my reckoning, could have done more, earlier, than they did to report Wehmeyer's abusive behavior.  As church employees, presumably all three of them have been trained to report suspected sexual misconduct against minors. 

It seems clear that Erickson did have conversations outside the confessional with the mother, and as a priest presumably he is a mandated reporter.  

It's not clear that any further damage was done by their lack of promptness in following up.  I take it that this is Choi's line of thought, too.  It's disturbing that Wehmeyer was able to take possession of his camper and may have destroyed evidence before the police impounded it, but I think the fault lies with the police for not acting with more alacrity in impounding it.  

The question of the seal of the confessional is an interesting one.  Two points: (1) it's not clear that the seal would pertain to a conversation in which a mother reports that her children have been abused, as that disclosure really isn't the confession of a sin.  Perhaps it would depend on the context in which it wa disclosed, e.g. perhaps she brought it up in the confessional because was wracked with guilt that perhaps she failed to do something as a parent to protect her children.  (Please note that I am not blaming her in any way; I'm speculating that a parent might be haunted by such doubts).  (2)  The seal of the confessional "belongs to" the one confessing sins.  In my view, it wouldn't have been out of line for Erickson to ask the mother for permission, right there and then, for him to report the allegations both to the archdiocese and the police.

The archdiocesan line about a 'seal of pastoral care' or some such is bollix, in my opinion.

The timeline notes that Wehmeyer received his promotion to pastor on the very same day that the Vicar General transitioned from one vicar to another.  Could it be that this transition worked to Wehmeyer's advantage, e.g. somehow his record, presumably speckled with red flags, wasn't examined closely by the new guy?

Overall, it's clear that Wehmeyer is a manipulative abuser who excelled at skirting capture and punishment.  The red flags that would have been in his file would not have been prior instances of child abuse, but they were a troubling pattern of behavior.  McDonough looks bad in all this.

Lots of failure all around.


On one hand, "Maria Monk" - the best-selling anti-Catholic book of the 19th century should be seen for what it is-fiction.  But not to the attornies who would exploit that fiction for millions of dollars. 

On one hand, "Maria Monk" - the best-selling anti-Catholic book of the 19th century should be seen for what it is-fiction.  But not to the attornies who would exploit that fiction for millions of dollars. 

It doesn't surprise me at all -- the whole Wehmeyer issue was always murky, -- not the stuff out of which an open and shut case is made.

The most disturbing thing about this whole timeline - we're arguing about 24 hours - who really cares about 23 hours or 49 hours - why can't the police be called within 48 seconds of the report?  Because a memo had to be drafted, informing the oath-of-obedience troll priests to protect the priests reputation, while "not interfering with the police".  How about full cooperation with the police, including a prompt phone call?  Meanwhile, the priest is given a, if we believe the archdiocese (we don't ) a 23.9 hour time to clean up any evidence of a crime.  He ended up pleading guilty, but what evidence did he destroy of additional crimes? We'll never know.

Interference with a police investigation.  I'm not a lawyer, but this HAS to be illegal.

This is why it may seem like a technicality, but Choi must press charges to the extent allowable by law. He has to realize he is NOT turning his back on his Catholic Church by prosecuting its criminals, but doing his best to help it get clean, and survive.  He must press charges because he did catch them on a technicality (assumedly), and they will push their "advantage" to protect priests' reputations, over the safety of children. We know this, because its always been that way, and until someone takes a stand for our children, it will always be "offfending priests before children", in the criminal enterprise known as the catholic church.

Why does the confessional offer a reprieve from priests duties to protect children?  What human being would hear of a child being molested, and then claim "but I heard it in a certain box in a church" where doubtless hundreds of children have similarly been molested across this world.  What worthwhile  human being would hear a report of a child molestation, and say, I'll report it in 24 hours?

I'd suggest new rules (reasonable people wouldn't need them - common sense) - 24 seconds to report if in cell phone range, otherwise, the minimum amount of time to get there. No exceptions. No privileged conversations, our kids are too important.

Jeff Anderson can't be the only one fighting for the safety of our children, we need help from our government - step up John Choi, do your job, protect our children.

The tax exempt status of this church should be examined carefully too - is there seperation of church and state? If so, why does the state fund it indirectly thru tax deductions? Why does the state fund this church, when it knows it has been complicit in abuse of children, and apparently, continues to do so? The church lobbies government, ignores its laws.  Doesn't sound like much of a religion to me.

And I'm a lifelong Catholic....

The U.N. committee on the rights of children doesn't approve of the way in which the Catholic church deals with sexual abuse of children:


If one were to diagram the Church of Rome's approach to handling the sexual abuse issue, it would look like various mazes overlayed on still other mazes ad infinitum.  Rome takes money from local churches.  Rome appoints and fires local bishops.  Rome laicizes local clergy around the world.  Rome writes the rules and disciplines bishops who run afoul of them.  Rome receives visiting episcopal delegations every five years.  Rome exacts obesiance. 

And Rome claims it has no jurisdiction over bishops and priests around the world.

At least the UN panel "gets it".

If only our U.S. legal system did the same.

Claire, thank you for the link.


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