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

The court-ordered release of records pertaining to abusive priests has been pivotal in sex-abuse scandals in other dioceses.

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.
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun

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or other strenuous outside pressure, the information disclosed by church leaders often has been woefully incomplete and outdated.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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”