After months of pushing for the landmark release of a list of priests accused of child molestation in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, advocates for victims finally will get their wish, but it remains to be seen how helpful or complete the accounting will be.
The archdiocese announced Monday evening that it will comply on Thursday with a judge’s order to produce the names of priests accused of sex abuse, as well as their past and present assignments and other details.
Ramsey County District Court Judge John Van de North gave the Archdiocese a Dec. 17 deadline for the release of a list of 33 priests it has substantial evidence sexually abused minors. The Diocese of Winona was ordered to release another 13.
In addition, Van de North gave the dioceses until Jan. 6 to release the names of abusers brought to its attention since 2004, when the lists were compiled.
Advocates for abuse survivors, however, were skeptical that the information released will mark a watershed moment. Commitments to full transparency in sex-abuse scandals in Roman Catholic dioceses here and worldwide have come peppered with caveats, they noted.
“These names won’t include all of the alleged predator priests in these two dioceses,” said Megan Peterson, leader of the Twin Cities chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). The two dioceses in question are the Twin Cities and Winona.
“We suspect that records have been destroyed and that abuse reports against dozens of credibly accused clerics have been wrongly deemed ‘unsubstantiated’ by self-serving Catholic officials over the past few decades,” she added.
The issue of who evaluates complaints
The problem, SNAP and other critics have repeatedly stressed, is that it should be civil authorities who evaluate complaints, not the church. Still, Peterson expressed gratitude that at last a court was willing to order the files released.
In other communities where sex-abuse scandals have torn through the church over the last decade, a court’s order of the release of files or of damning testimony by Roman Catholic leaders has marked the start of meaningful transparency.
In court Monday, lawyers for the Twin Cities church had argued for more limited disclosure, saying that they had not substantiated allegations against three of the priests on the list and had no evidence a fourth served in the Archdiocese.
They also insisted that there was only one credible set of allegations since 2004, and that the case — presumably that of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer — had already been widely reported.
The judge’s order came as a preliminary part of the first sex-abuse suit filed since Minnesota changed laws regarding the window victims have in which to file complaints. In this and other cases attorneys representing John Doe 1 have repeatedly asked for the release of the lists.
Law eases statutes of limitation
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 law firm pressing the majority of the suits, Jeff Anderson & Associates, has asked for the list in past cases but not gotten far enough to compel its release.
In the current case, they argued a new theory: that publicizing the information was a badly needed precautionary move, arguing that without it it’s impossible to know whether the presumed offenders are in contact with children.
“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 [Thomas] Adamson posed to youth,” reads Doe’s complaint [PDF].
Church officials have said that all known offenders have been removed from active ministry. News media accounts, most notably Minnesota Public Radio’s ongoing investigation of church whistleblower accounts, suggest otherwise.
“What the judge wants is to see the list released so that so that any risk of harm to individuals is removed,” said Mike Finnegan, one of Doe’s lawyers. “I thought he was very clear on what he was ordering [church officials] to do.”
Conflicting statements from archdiocese
It’s unclear whether the archdiocese’s announcement that it will produce the list on Thursday will mark a definitive shift in a controversy over disclosure that’s raged for years. While maintaining a commitment to transparency, church officials have made conflicting statements about the lists.
In a Nov. 11 statement in the official publication Catholic Spirit, Archbishop John Nienstedt said the church would release the list, but after receiving permission from the courts — which Doe’s lawyers insist it did not need — and then only the names of those currently living in the Archdiocese.
In a Nov. 21 column, he announced release could be delayed until after the Dec. 2 hearing. “Our first concern is for potential victims, so our initial round of disclosure will be focused on priests residing in the archdiocese where we have definitive information,” Nienstedt wrote, adding that the goal would be to eventually disclose all known abusers, regardless where they currently reside.
“We set a goal to provide the first round of this disclosure in November, and we are working diligently with the proper authorities to allow us to do so,” he added. “This takes time, but like all things of this importance, we must do this accurately for the sake of everyone affected.”
Judge Van de North Monday left the door open for the Dioceses to submit written justifications for leaving particular priests off their lists. Presumably, he can overrule their objections. Church leaders, meanwhile, can appeal the ruling.
Transparency commitment questioned
The back and forth, SNAP insisted in a statement, suggests that Nienstedt has yet to fully commit to transparency. “Archbishop John Nienstedt wants to keep one name secret because he can supposedly find no proof that the accused priest worked in the Twin Cities,” the group noted. “So what? If he’s a proven, admitted or credibly accused child molester, parents, parishioners and the public should be warned about him, no matter where he worked.
“Nienstedt wants to keep secret three other names because church officials supposedly can’t substantiate the allegations,” SNAP’s statement continued. “That argument might wash except that long-secret church records show that time and time again, even with credible victims and ample evidence, Catholic officials claim they can’t ‘substantiate’ allegations.
“They have so abused the public trust and their own ‘kangaroo courts’ that no reasonable person believes the church hierarchy when it says that an accusation cannot be substantiated.”
Doe’s 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.
In a separate order due Dec. 11, Van de North will rule whether the claim giving rise to the release of the names, a charge alleging that church officials knowingly left Doe in harm’s way, can proceed to trial.