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.