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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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