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Court-ordered disclosure would offer best hope of full accounting in priest sex-abuse cases

St. Paul's Cathedral
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
When the modern clergy-sex-abuse scandals first burst into headlines in 2002, courts were more deferential to church leaders than they are now, says canon lawyer Charles Reid.

As part of a civil suit pending in Ramsey County District Court, a judge could order the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release publicly the list of 33 priests “credibly accused” of child sex abuse as well as a list of 13 offenders maintained by the Diocese of Winona.

Absent a grand jury investigation or action by prosecutors, the release of the list offers the best hope of a full accounting of the extent of the sex-abuse cases in Minnesota and any cover up, according to several people who have followed the mushrooming sex-abuse scandal in the local Roman Catholic Church.

The court-ordered release of records pertaining to abusive priests has been pivotal in sex-abuse scandals in other dioceses. Absent the intervention of civil authorities or other strenuous outside pressure, the information disclosed by church leaders often has been woefully incomplete and outdated.

On Monday, Minnesota Public Radio reported that church officials left a confessed child molester, Father Clarence Vavra, in active ministry until his retirement — with an extra $650 a month as an inducement. Church leaders did not inform police or civil authorities of Vavra’s disclosures.

In the wake of the revelation, Archbishop John Nienstedt released a letter committing to release the names of priests known to have transgressed. Almost immediately, critics pointed out that the parameters the archbishop set out would result in the release of a partial list at best.

“During the month of November, and upon receipt of permission of the relevant court, the Archdiocese will be disclosing the names, locations and status of priests who are currently living in the Archdiocese, and who we know have substantiated claims against them of committing sexual abuse against minors,” Nienstedt wrote. “All of these men have been removed from ministry.”

First under new state law

Filed on behalf of a plaintiff referred to in court documents as Doe 1, the Ramsey County suit is the first filed by Jeff Anderson & Associates since the Minnesota Legislature passed the Child Victims Act last May. The new law eases the statutes of limitation that have prevented scores of past claims by abuse victims from moving forward in local courts.

The suit alleges that Father Thomas Adamson repeatedly abused Doe in 1976 and 1977 at St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul Park, a dozen years after church officials were first made aware that the priest had sexual contact with minors and a year after church leaders in Winona transferred him to St. Paul for treatment. Said to have abused some 20 boys, Adamson was transferred 10 times.

As a part of the suit, in August Doe’s lawyers asked Judge John Van de North to order the release of records pertaining to known offenders in the Twin Cities Archdiocese and in the Diocese of Winona.

“My biggest concern and worry is that [Archdiocesan officials] are not doing it today. Each hour and each day that goes by more kids are at risk,” said Mike Finnegan, one of the attorneys working on the case. “The Archdiocese has had that list since 2004.”

Lawyers received list under seal in 2009

Anderson and Finnegan have asked for the list repeatedly in different cases and received it under seal in 2009, which means they cannot share or act on its contents. But because until May most cases were thrown out for being too old, no court has been forced to address the question.

“The negligence and/or deceptions and concealment by defendants was specially injurious to plaintiff’s health as he and his family were unaware of the danger posed to young children left unsupervised with agents of defendant, and in particular unaware of the immense danger that Adamson posed to youth,” reads Doe’s complaint [PDF].  

Van De North could rule any time. Separately, news reports Wednesday suggest that the St. Paul Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation involving possible child porn on a former priest’s computer and the archdiocese’s handling of the incident.

“As a general rule it’s safe and accurate to say that church officials very rarely disclose much about sex abuse until they are forced to by court orders or by a determined victim in settlement or by an extreme scandal such as the one you’re seeing in Minnesota,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Often some information disclosed

Often bishops are motivated to disclose some information to head off changes to statutes of limitations like the one enacted in Minnesota this year. And frequently the voluntary disclosure comes with caveats like those announced by Nienstedt, Clohessy said.

“It starts out as, ‘We’re going to give you the predators’ names,’” he said. “But by the time they’re done months or years later you have the names of the already identified, living, diocesan priests who are left-handed. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly.”

Nienstedt is right in stating that authority over Jesuits, Dominicans and other priests who belong to religious orders belongs to the orders, but that doesn’t mean he can’t ask the leaders of the orders to disclose the names of their offenders — particularly when they have fulfilled diocesan functions, said Charles Reid, a canon lawyer and professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.

When the modern clergy-sex-abuse scandals first burst into headlines in 2002, courts were more deferential to church leaders than they are now, Reid added. So far this year, bishops in Milwaukee and Los Angeles have been ordered to turn over troves of documents showing what they knew and when they knew it.

Cases in LA and Milwaukee

“Los Angeles is the paradigm of what full disclosure looks like,” said Reid, adding that the records released in connection with a $660 million settlement with victims enabled the creation of a database that contains very detailed information on every known allegation — without exposing any victims. “There again we see very wide, very sweeping court orders.”

In January, Archbishop Jose Gomez publicly rebuked his predecessor as head of the church in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, for his handling of decades of allegations. Gomez relieved Mahony, who retired two years ago, from all public duties.

In July the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was ordered to release offender files in association with its bankruptcy filing. Church officials there have been at odds with Anderson, who represents a number of Wisconsin victims who in July lost a bid to stop the transfer of more than $50 million into the cemetery fund, where they would be sheltered from settlement claims.

In both communities, the full disclosure marked a turning point, said Reid. “It made clear that cover-ups will not be tolerated, that full disclosure of predators is what is expected,” he said. “We need to know more. We need to know the names.”

Former archdiocese attorney Jennifer Haselberger, the whistleblower whose revelations touched off the Twin Cities scandal earlier this fall, has said that local church leaders have met with bankruptcy lawyers who represented the Milwaukee church.

Nine dioceses have declared bankruptcy

Nine dioceses have declared bankruptcy in recent years, struggling with the one-two punch of dwindling donations and rising legal and settlement costs that accompanies sex abuse revelations. Gallup, N.M., is the most recent, declaring bankruptcy in September. Several religious orders have also filed.

Clohessy said he is optimistic that disclosure will be compelled in one of the 25-30 suits filed by Anderson & Associates since the law changed in May. The plaintiffs “all have the same lawyer, and that lawyer says to all of them, ‘It’s good for your healing and good for kids if you ask for more than a financial settlement,’” he said.

Predicts some plaintiffs may opt to go to trial

While church leaders have been settling with abuse victims for decades, Clohessy also predicted that some of the current plaintiffs may opt to take their cases to trial in an effort to secure information about the hierarchy’s handling of their cases.

Finally, while SNAP would welcome court-ordered disclosure, Clohessy said he’s skeptical about “deep, substantive reform” taking place until there are criminal prosecutions of church leaders suspected of things like witness tampering, destruction of evidence and failure to report suspected abuse.

“It’s a barrel problem,” he said, “not an apple problem.” 

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Comments (13)

Beyond disappointed

As a practicing Catholic I am distressed that time after time, members of the hierarchy of my church only agree to act on behalf of victims when forced to by court order or police charges. I thought as moral arbiters they would hold themselves to higher standards than those used to control the behavior of mobsters and street thugs.

Certainly I'm far from the

Certainly I'm far from the only person to read these pieces week after week and wonder at the reluctance of our criminal justice system to act against this organization. Its mode of operation has been known for years to involve Illegal practices of many varieties yet civil lawsuits are necessary to shake loose even the barest of information. Simply from what has already come to light, is it not clear that crimes are in process at this very moment in the halls of this firm?

The deference this conglomerate receives is simply beyond belief. It's to the point that even the political points to be gained by taking down a criminal organization are left on the table, apparently due to the free pass afforded any long-standing group which claims access to an imaginary omnipotent being.

No, jail time would do it

Look, this abuse is a crime. The Church has no business "investigating" it in the first place. Listen:

1) If a Priest or other church member assaults or abuses you or a family member, you report that to the police, not the church.

2) If you work for the church, and someone reports a crime, you call the police. If someone were to report a theft, you'd call the police, it's no different if someone reports a rape.

Anyone who investigates a crime without reporting it to the police is flirting with committing a crime themselves. What the church ended up doing was obstructing justice, conspiracy, etc. Rape is not a religious freedom, if this crap happened in any other organization people would be charged for a whole host of crimes.

Criminal prosecutions are the answer.

Once the entire church hierarchy knows their own skins are headed into the fire, we'll see a marvelous transformation take place - you might say they will experience an inspiration to tell the truth.

Right now, it appears that only when a diocese files bankruptcy does the leadership disclose what they know, only because compelled by civil law.

As far as I know, the criminal law gives no absolution based on the vestments one wears. Yet there seems to be a general fallacy in the air that the criminals in the church are exceptional cases, requiring exceptional handling. If instead we treat them all - ESPECIALLY those in the church hierarchy who are obstructing justice - like the ordinary criminals they are, we'll get the information needed, and pronto.

The time is now...

Yes, we beg the Ramsey County District Court judge to unseal the list of 33 priests “credibly accused” of child sex abuse as well as a list of 13 offenders maintained by the Diocese of Winona.

But also, we believe there should be a thorough grand jury investigation into the St Paul-Minneapolis church officials for enabling and empowering children to be sexually abused. The full truth needs to be exposed and those responsible for committing crimes of cover up and child endangerment need to be held accountable to the law of the land. Until this happens children will continue to be sexually abused within this system.
Let's hope that anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed will come forward and contact police, no matter how long ago it happened.
Silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511.
"SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

I believe Mr. Udstrand

…has nailed it. We’re talking about crimes here, not doctrinal disputes over theology. As Paul said, once an allegation has been made, it’s not up to the church to investigate. It’s up to the police, who should have been notified as soon as there WAS an allegation.

I worked for 30 years in a public high school. Let’s suppose school district employees, counselors, teachers, custodians, coaches, were alleged to have sexually abused students and/or athletes. In what universe would the school principal be the one to conduct the investigation of the alleged crimes? Then, if that principal thought the case merited it, s/he might forward what s/he’d found out to the superintendent, who might then carry out another investigation.

Then, if there appears to be some merit to the still-unpublicized charges, the personnel involved are transferred to other schools, or urged, with financial incentives, to retire. If you're not disgusted by this scenario, you haven't been paying attention.

As a matter of fact, not opinion or theology, when school district personnel — not just in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but anywhere in the country where there are public schools — are alleged to have committed these kinds of crimes, there’s not only no hesitation about charging them, prosecuting them, and playing it all out in the local media, more often than not the local media nearly drool on themselves over the prospect of such a case. In this instance, however, the action taken so far has been done at a glacial pace.

The deference being shown to officials of the archdiocese is not only appalling, it has zero basis in law. The archbishop and other responsible church officials fully deserve to be escorted to the nearest St. Paul police station and booked on the charge of obstruction of justice, with a trial date to be set later.

Clarification

When the issue of releasing the names and the court order came out recently, the church made it seem like that they were being prevented from doing the right thing by the court. But the only reason that the court blocked the release was because the church argued for it to be blocked. The church could just say the word and the judge would lift the order.

The names are not being released for one reason and one reason only: Nienstedt and company are more interested in protecting the abusers than the well being of the victims.

Here's a policy and approach that is effective

Retiring from the field of law enforcement here in Philadelphia, there is nothing better to capture the attention of criminals (in this case, alleged child sexual abusers and conspirators/abettors) than the cold steel of handcuffs, fingerprint ink on the extremities, the spartan and unexciting cuisine of detention centers, and the appropriate fashion statement of the orange wardrobe.

As evidenced by the past few years of proceedings here in the City of Brotherly Love (the legal, genuine variety), local archdiocesan Catholic leadership have begun to realize just how serious their predicament really is, i.e., investigating legitimate abuse allegations, failing to act on the danger to children and subsequently moving (or hiding) the offender to another location, whether inside the archdiocese or elsewhere, where other children are placed at risk due to the CRIMINAL CONDUCT of both the abuser as well as leadership co-conspirators.

Michael Skiendzielewski
Captain (retired)
Philadelphia Police Dept.

prosecution

Go to www.facebook.com/Openthefiles to support a national day of action that the church open the files or face RICO prosecution.

The young man with the scarred face,

by the time he saw me, was too old to sue the dog owners who had negligently caused injury him when he was a child.

Apparently in the view of our legislature and governor, the negligence of put bull owners and drunk drivers is less serious than the bureaucratic negligence of the bishops in dealing a small number of errant or criminal priests (I am pleased that in my 60 years in the Church I have known none of those priests).

The entire universe of simple, common law negligence is covered by the veneer of a statute of limitation -- except for the one gun port that the legislature has opened up in the direction of the Church. For someone who vehemently opposed many of the Church's political positions on (for example) abortion and gay marriage, I am now wondering how to confront the secular bigotry that is coming at it from so many directions.

Negligence?

Sorry, but protecting and enabling child rapists is not negligence. Its criminal behavior. What we are talking about is nothing short of pure evil. I am simply dumbfounded by the idea that you see the church as a victim.

The Law

The thing I keep wondering about it why is the worst thing that can happen to the offenders is they lose their parish .. or their job. Why are they not in jail? Including the Archbishop. The bar on these punishments need to be raised to fit the crimes. If you study the bishopaccountability.org website you can see a lot of the priests with credible allegations are resting out their days in lives of leisure and sometimes even luxury. It is all a complete betrayal of the kind people who support them - their parishes!

Confidentiality is no excuse either

I come from a background in psychology and health care, now this is different from clergy but there are some similarities in that clergy claim some of the same confidences and counseling roles. But check this out, in the medical/therapeutic profession here in MN we have a very clear rule of conduct called: "Duty to Warn." Basically if you become aware of a clients intent to harm someone, or a likelihood that harm will occur, you are actually required by law to notify the potential victim and/or the police. Here's the actual statute:

https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=148.975

So how is it that all of these criminal sexual assaults can be reported to church, yet no one is warned, and the police are never notified? Again, Duty to Warn doesn't specifically apply, but the principle in law and the criminal code are clearly present.