Archbishop Hebda: ‘We failed’ in case of abusive priest

| Jessica Trygstad and Maria Wiering | July 22, 2016 | 1 Comment
Archbishop Bernard Hebda sits down for an interview in this April 2016 file photo. Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop Bernard Hebda sits down for an interview in this April 2016 file photo. Dianne Towalski/For The Catholic Spirit

Criminal charges dropped; Archdiocese continues collaboration with county attorney’s office, bolstering December agreement

Standing before reporters and cameras in Hayden Hall July 20, Archbishop Bernard Hebda said that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis failed in its handling of the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who pleaded guilty in two courts of abusing three brothers while pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul.

“We failed to give priority to the safety and well-being of the children he hurt over the interests of Curtis Wehmeyer and the archdiocese,” Archbishop Hebda said. “In particular, we failed to prevent Curtis Wehmeyer from sexually abusing children. Those children, their parents, their family, their parish and others were harmed. We are sorry. I am sorry.”

The archbishop’s statement followed the announcement that the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, under the leadership of Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, had dismissed criminal charges filed last year against the archdiocese, and the parties had amended a settlement agreement they reached in December on a related civil petition.

“Words are not enough,” Archbishop Hebda acknowledged. “We must, we will, and we are doing better. Far-reaching changes are underway.”

He pointed to the archdiocese’s inclusion of more lay people in its safe environment protocols, as well as the impact of Ramsey County’s oversight of the archdiocese’s policies and procedures and compliance with them.

“Over the past year, we worked with Mr. Choi and his team to define how the archdiocese can best create and maintain safe environments for children in our parishes, schools and communities,” he said. “Over the past six months, we have demonstrated our commitment to that path. Today, we humbly acknowledge our past failures and look forward to continuing down that path to achieve those vital, common goals that together we all share.”

Janell Rasmussen

Janell Rasmussen

Deputy Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Janell Rasmussen noted that since the agreement was reached, archdiocesan leaders have been working closely with Choi and his team and will continue to seek their advice and assistance.

Describing the day as one of “solemn reckoning and self-assessment,” Rasmussen said their work will never be done. “Today, tomorrow and every day we will ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing all we can to make sure children are safe?’”

Collaboration instead of conflict

In June 2015, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, whose jurisdiction includes St. Paul, filed criminal charges and a civil petition against the archdiocese, alleging it failed to protect children in its handling of Wehmeyer’s case. The charges included three counts of contributing to the need for protection or services, and three counts of contributing to a juvenile’s delinquency.

In the summer of 2010, Wehmeyer, then a priest of the archdiocese and pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, sexually abused two brothers — ages 12 and 14 — in a camper trailer he had parked on parish grounds and on a camping trip. The boys disclosed the abuse two years later, and Wehmeyer was removed from ministry. In 2013, their older brother revealed that he, too, had been abused by the priest during camping trips in 2008, 2009 and 2011. In several instances of the abuse, Wehmeyer provided alcohol or marijuana to the boys.

Wehmeyer pleaded guilty in 2013 of sexually abusing the two younger brothers in 2010. He also pleaded guilty in August 2015 in a Wisconsin court of sexually assaulting the third brother on a camping trip. Pope Francis dismissed him from the clerical state in 2015, meaning he can no longer exercise priestly ministry or present himself as a priest. He is currently in prison.

The Ramsey County charges alleged that the archdiocese had information that should have prompted its leaders to remove Wehmeyer from ministry before Archbishop Harry Flynn appointed him administrator of Blessed Sacrament in 2006, and it did not follow its own protocols, despite known instances of Wehmeyer’s “risky behavior” and violations of safe environment standards.

Ten days after the charges were filed, Archbishop John Nienstedt, who had led the archdiocese since 2008, and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché resigned as leaders of the archdiocese. Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda, then coadjutor archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, to the temporary role of the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator alongside Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens. In March, the pope named Archbishop Hebda the archdiocese’s permanent archbishop, and he was installed in May.

“When I arrived here about a year ago, criminal and civil charges against the archdiocese had just been announced,” Archbishop Hebda said. “A decision had to be made: Do we fight the charges in court — which would have taken years of time and considerable resources — or do we work with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office to try to make amends to those harmed and achieve justice for all in the broadest possible way. We chose the latter.”

He added: “Cooperation was the right avenue to achieve a just solution.”

In December, the archdiocese reached a settlement agreement with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office on the civil petition, in which it agreed to continue child protection protocols it had already implemented as well as additional measures, and to Ramsey County’s oversight of its safe environment procedures for three years.

‘The right thing is being done’

On July 20, the archdiocese presented a six-month progress report on its compliance with the agreement to Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner. Attorneys for the archdiocese and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office described their strong, ongoing collaboration and affirmed the report satisfied the County Attorney’s requirements and demonstrated a significant effort to protect children.

Warner accepted the report and commended the work of the archdiocese and attorney’s office.

“What happened to kids in this case cannot be undone, but steps to work together . . . [are] significant,” she said. “You rolled up your sleeves, and you looked at what you could do to protect kids going forward.”

Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ring noted that in the settlement, the archdiocese had agreed to take on “something more comprehensive than a court may have been able to offer.” At a later press conference, Choi explained that a court likely wouldn’t have been able to mandate county oversight of the archdiocese’s protocol implementation due to laws separating church and state.

At the hearing, Ring submitted an amendment to the settlement agreement, which includes the public admission of wrongdoing from the archdiocese regarding Wehmeyer’s victims, the archbishop’s participation in at least three restorative justice sessions, the lifting of prior confidentiality agreements made with victims, and a commitment to maintain the position of a director of safe environment and ministerial standards. The county’s oversight of the settlement was also extended one year.

“If the efforts of the first six months continue for the next three-and-a-half years, it means kids are being protected and that the right thing is being done,” Warner said.

The amended agreement also allowed Choi to appoint a position on the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, which reviews cases of clergy misconduct and makes recommendations to the archbishop. Choi appointed Patty Wetterling, a St. Joseph resident who became a leading child advocate in the state following the abduction of her son, Jacob, in 1989.

Tim O'Malley

Tim O’Malley

The archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment, Tim O’Malley, worked on the Wetterling case as an agent with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“I understand the vital importance of the work of the Ministerial Review Board in keeping our communities as safe as possible,” Wetterling said in a July 20 statement. “For me, this is a great opportunity to help champions that I have always admired build a world where children can grow up free from sexual exploitation.”

Dismissed criminal charges

At the end of the hearing, Ring announced that his office was dropping the criminal charges against the archdiocese. In a press conference later that morning, Choi said that his aim from the start was for the archdiocese to admit fault and wrongdoing in its role in failing to protect Wehmeyer’s victims.

“Without such an admission by the archdiocese or a determination by a court, there could never be true accountability,” Choi said. “It was not only Curtis Wehmeyer who harmed children, it was the archdiocese as well.

“Today, through the leadership of the new permanent archbishop, Bernard Hebda, that direct and public admission of wrongdoing has now been made,” he said. “In light of this admission of wrongdoing and the additional requirements that are now part of the amended civil settlement agreement, I have chosen to dismiss the pending criminal case against the archdiocese.”

The victims, their family and their attorney supported the charges’ dismissal, he said.

“With this amended civil agreement, all of the goals we articulated when we brought forth our legal actions have been realized,” Choi said. “We have achieved an admission of wrongdoing, [and] we have put additional legal safeguards in place to ensure the archdiocese does not repeat its failures.”

Choi said the victims are likely abuse claimants in the archdiocese’s case of Reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, which it entered in January 2015 in response to mounting claims of clergy sexual abuse in the midst of a three-year lifting of the state’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse claims. The archdiocese filed a plan for Reorganization in May.

Choi also explained his office’s decision not to charge individuals.

“We’ve thoroughly investigated just about everything,” he said. “The key issue here is that for us to bring criminal charges against anyone, whether it’s a corporation, whether it’s an individual, we have to believe that there is sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . In the context of all the facts that we had gathered, to say that one particular individual was responsible for contributing to the harm done to these three children, that would be a harder thing to prove in court.”

Ongoing steps

Ahead of the July 20 hearing, O’Malley said its first report to Ramsey County details the archdiocese’s work to make sure children are safe. He pointed out that more than 91,000 people have undergone safe environment training mandated by the archdiocese. Ultimately, he believes awareness along with training is the long-term solution to keeping kids safe.

He also noted more involvement from the laity on the archdiocese’s various advisory boards, adding that a survivor of child sexual abuse by a priest is on the Ministerial Review Board.

“It’s not just a small group of like-minded individuals making decisions today,” he said. “It’s a broader representation, and it’s a lot of diverse opinions, and that’s how you come about making the best decisions, the most informed decisions.”

He hopes the archdiocese’s efforts will result in the broader community’s trust and confidence, but more important, that people will join the effort with heightened awareness of sexual abuse.

“We’ve demonstrated through our actions how serious we are about our commitment and that we’re going to follow through,” O’Malley said earlier of the report’s contents. “And it just takes time to earn trust. And I believe that’s the process we needed to go through to have them show that these are not hollow words, we mean it, and more than saying it, we’re doing it.”

In terms of compliance with the settlement agreement, O’Malley said the archdiocese is ahead of schedule. It’s due back in court for the next six-month report at the end of December.

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  • Paula Ruddy

    Thanks for the thoroughness of this report and the direct acknowledgement of responsibility. Onward (with rolled up sleeves!).