Are our kids safe?

| September 26, 2018 | 0 Comments

As new abuse scandals rock the U.S., safe environment policies — and their enforcement — in the spotlight

This past January, standing in the Ramsey County Courthouse lobby following a six-month check-in on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ safe environment efforts, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Archbishop Bernard Hebda introduced Tom Johnson as their jointly selected ombudsman.

A former Hennepin County Attorney, Johnson had been involved for decades in child-safety efforts, both in law enforcement and advocacy. He was a founder of CornerHouse, a nonprofit that changed the way children who are abuse victims are evaluated by experts worldwide. He had also served as the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, a nonprofit focused on improving the criminal justice system.

Now, he was taking on a new role as an independent, confidential advocate for survivors who were seeking help in healing, but who didn’t feel comfortable turning directly to the Church or its resources.

With the courthouse’s iconic onyx statue “Vision of Peace” a giant behind them, Johnson, 73, said it was, in part, his friendship with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, now adults, that motivated him to take on the role. At the time, he said, he wasn’t sure what it would entail.

Now, nine months later, he’s been contacted by about 15 survivors, he said, and he has helped them navigate the resources they need to heal. For some, that includes counseling; for others, it’s the words “I’m sorry” from a Church representative.

His role is also critical to accountability and transparency in the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts, at a time when, across the United States and elsewhere, those qualities in the Church’s handling of clergy sexual abuse are in question. He said that one of the common motivations for survivors coming forward is that they don’t want abuse to happen again. Johnson said he feels confident in the archdiocese’s current child protection efforts and trajectory.

“It will be healing to those people to know that everything that is feasible had been done to prevent that [in the archdiocese],” he said.

Task Force review

Johnson’s confidence comes from changes the archdiocese has made in its safe environment efforts since 2014, following a local scandal that raised questions about how well the archdiocese was implementing its policies on safe environment and abuse reporting. In response, the archdiocese commissioned a Safe Environment and Ministerial Task Force to review the archdiocese’s policies and enforcement related to clergy misconduct, including child sex abuse, and to recommend improvements.

Over the course of six months, that task force — a team of seven lay people who established themselves as a nonprofit organization independent from the archdiocese — reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed 32 people. Their March 2014 report outlined five “serious shortcomings in the archdiocese’s implementations of the Dallas Charter” — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2002 document establishing policies around clergy sexual abuse — and six recommendations of how the archdiocese could remedy them.

The shortcomings included concentrating too much power for decision-making in one or two individuals with insufficient oversight; inadequate communication within the archdiocese and with the faithful that allowed important information to be “compartmentalized”; insufficient or outdated record keeping; lack of a means to audit and measure policy compliance; and an insufficient reporting system.

The task force’s first recommendation was for the revision of the archdiocese’s safe environment organizational structure. That included merging two clergy review boards and establishing a lay person to be the archdiocese’s delegate for safe environment — a position that had been formerly held by priests.

Former cop in top role

That job is what brought Tim O’Malley to the archdiocese as the director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment in September 2014. A former judge and Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension superintendent with FBI experience, O’Malley was tasked with overhauling the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts and implementing the task force’s recommendations. In November 2014, O’Malley added Michael Campion, also a former BCA superintendent and a former director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, to his team as assistant director. In February 2016, Janell Rasmussen joined the office as its deputy director. Like O’Malley and Campion, she had also worked at the BCA, where she coordinated the state’s AMBER Alert program.

Along with members of the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, which O’Malley oversees, that team has worked to improve polices, record-keeping and oversight related to safe environment efforts.

They’re guided by the requirements of the Dallas Charter, as well as additional protocols established in 2014 as part of a settlement agreement with “Doe 1” and in 2015 as part of a settlement with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. The latter settlement extended oversight of the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts to Choi’s office until 2020.

Johnson’s ombudsman role is a requirement of that settlement agreement.

Also part of the settlement agreement is compliance among parishes and schools with the “Essential 3,” mandatory requirements the archdiocese enhanced in 2015 for all employees and volunteers. The “three” are passing a background check, signing a code of conduct and completing safe environment training. Schools and parishes are also required to include safe environment training for students in their school and faith formation curricula; if parents ask that their child opt out, they receive a packet of safe environment education materials.

As principal of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata, Patrick Fox has an insider’s view of what the archdiocese’s safe environment policies look like in action. Safety has always been a priority for school leaders, he said, but archdiocesan requirements have affected the strategy for how the school puts that into practice — and for the better, he said.

Fox has more than 10 years of experience working with the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts. Before he began working at St. Bartholomew five years ago, he had been principal of St. Michael Catholic School in Prior Lake. In the past five years, he said, he’s noticed that “more emphasis from the [OPCY] office has been focused on helping parishes and schools implement and track” requirements.

The archdiocese’s policies and procedures “bolster preventative measures,” he said by email. “Anyone who wants to be on our campus and interact with children knows they need to comply. Naturally, some folks feel it’s not fair to force them to jump through these kinds of hoops. Our job is to help them understand that training and E3 requirements help keep kids safe.”

The training includes VIRTUS’ “Protecting God’s Children” program, which was first created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group in the late 1990s in response to growing awareness of instances of clergy sexual abuse. Used in the archdiocese since 2004, the training aims to prevent abuse by knowing warning signs, controlling access to children, observing children’s and adults’ behaviors, and communicating concerns. Clergy, parish and school employees, and volunteers must retrain every three years. Each parish and school in the archdiocese has a designated safe environment coordinator who ensures employees and volunteers comply with the Essential 3.

“The most common feedback I receive is from folks who, at first, aren’t enthused about attending a VIRTUS training session,” Fox said. “When completed, however, they let me know the subject matter was heavy, but better than expected, and the training created a more comprehensive awareness of how to keep kids safe.”

At Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, E3 compliance is a time-consuming task. Before the archdiocese mandated the E3, the school was already completing criminal background checks on its staff and volunteers.

This summer, major building renovation work was underway at Totino-Grace. Among necessary logistics was the coordination of criminal background checks of the construction company’s workers who would be on site. The precaution was redundant, said its president Craig Junker; students were already banned from the renovation site, making it unlikely that workers would encounter them. However, the school would rather err on being overly cautious, he said. More onerous has been coordinating E3 training for the 170 engineering mentors some of its students work with, sometimes only via web. It’s expensive for the school, Junker said, but it’s important to do.

THE PAST FIVE YEARSMAY 25, 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act passes, lifting for three years the statute of limitations on historic claims of sexual abuse. The first survivor to file a civil lawsuit against the archdiocese after the statute was lifted was Doe 1, a victim in 1976 and 1977 of Thomas Adamson, a priest of the Diocese of Winona who also had assignments in the archdiocese.

JULY 2013 Media reports allege that archdiocesan leaders mishandled allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse. Its former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, was the main source.

OCTOBER 2013 The St. Paul Police Department launches an investigation, and the archdiocese’s vicar general, then-Father Peter Laird, resigns. Archbishop John Nienstedt, then head of the archdiocese, establishes a new Episcopal Vicar for Ministerial Standards and names Father D. Reginald Whitt, a Dominican priest then teaching at the University of St. Thomas, to the role. Father Whitt commissions a Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force to study the archdiocese’s handling of clergy abuse and misconduct, and to make specific recommendations to improve policies and procedures.

NOVEMBER 2013 The archdiocese hires an independent firm, Kinsale Management Consulting, to review its clergy records dating back to 1970. The firm reviews 3,333 files before it completes its work in April 2014.

DECEMBER 2013 The archdiocese discloses a list of 33 priests credibly accused of abuse. As a result of the Kinsale review, other names would be added in the following months. On Dec. 9, Bishop Andrew Cozzens is ordained an auxiliary bishop. A week later, Archbishop Nienstedt announces that he has been accused of touching a boy’s buttocks while posing in 2009 for a confirmation photo. He steps away from ministry while police investigate; the county attorney ultimately declines to press charges, and Archbishop Nienstedt returns to ministry in March 2014.

JANUARY 2014 Archdiocesan officials launch an investigation into allegations that Archbishop Nienstedt had engaged in sexual misconduct with adults. Bishop Cozzens stated in August 2018 that this investigation shows the need for the establishment of an “independent structure” to review allegations against bishops and that he believes this investigation should still go before such a structure.

Also in January 2014, the Ramsey County attorney declines to prosecute an individual related to a specific legal violation, but police continue the investigation, ultimately receiving funding in April that year to expand the manpower dedicated to it.

MARCH 2014 The Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force publishes its recommendations.

OCTOBER 2014 The archdiocese settles with Doe 1, committing to 17 child protection protocols to prevent abuse, promote survivors’ healing and establish full transparency. Some of those protocols require the archdiocese to continue certain measures that it already had in effect, such as prohibiting priests from having an unrelated child in his automobile unless supervised. New protocols included requiring archdiocesan leadership to meet with any survivor and adopting a whistle-blower policy concerning the report of abuse. The Doe 1 protocols also require the archdiocese to continue to publicly disclose substantiated claims of sexual abuse by clergy and the names of clergy with credible claims under investigation.

JANUARY 2015 The archdiocese files for bankruptcy amid the mounting number of claims against it brought forward in the wake of the Minnesota Child Victims Act. In filing for bankruptcy, it aimed to equitably distribute its resources among survivors. Most of the claimants’ instances of abuse occurred between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s, and all of the men have been permanently removed from ministry.

JUNE 2015 The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office announces it has finished its investigation of the archdiocese, and it files civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children in the Curtis Wehmeyer case. Archbishop Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché resign 10 days later, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda is named a temporary leader of the archdiocese, a role Pope Francis later makes permanent.

DECEMBER 2015 The county attorney and archdiocese settle the civil charges with a 24-page agreement that outlines child protection measures the archdiocese had already implemented or has promised to implement, as well as the county attorney’s office’s oversight of those measures.

JULY 2016 The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office drops the criminal charges.

MAY 2018 The archdiocese and attorneys representing victims/survivors in its bankruptcy announce a joint plan for reorganization that includes $210 million for 442 victims/survivors.

SEPTEMBER 2018 The $210 settlement plan is confirmed in U.S. bankruptcy court. Survivors are expected to receive funds from its trust by year end.

‘Cover-ups will not be tolerated’

Brian Short was the vice-chairman of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force. When it completed its work, he didn’t want to deal with the topic again, said Short, CEO of Leamington Co., a holding company, and a former U.S. magistrate judge. But, he was asked to join the archdiocese’s board of directors and lead the audit committee, which oversees the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts.

“One of the things I’ve insisted on with first, Archbishop [John] Nienstedt and now Archbishop Hebda [is that] we have a real, functioning audit committee that will monitor compliance, monitor all the risks that the archdiocese faces,” which, he said, range from clergy sexual abuse to IT breaches and slips and falls. “The key to all of these things is to have policies in place that are real, and procedures in place that are in fact followed, and to have people in place who can monitor. … That’s what the Archdiocese of
St. Paul and Minneapolis has in place now.”

Because of his work on the task force, Short knows intimately that policies are insufficient without enforcement and oversight. He calls O’Malley’s hiring and the revamping of the archdiocese’s safe environment office “the key to everything.”

“We don’t need to write a set of rules that say abuse shouldn’t occur. We all know that,” said Short, a parishioner of Assumption in downtown St. Paul. “What’s changed [since 2014] is that there is a commitment to create a set of practices and enforcement mechanisms coupled with review, overview, of those mechanisms that create a commitment to compliance, and a culture where cover-ups will not be tolerated.”

And, he said, when allegations of priest misconduct are made, real investigations are conducted to get to the truth of the matter, not to prove that the priest is innocent.

That includes greater disclosure than most organizations would require, he noted. The names of priests are published in The Catholic Spirit and on the archdiocese’s website if they are under investigation for child sexual abuse, even before allegations are deemed credible.

MRB ‘incredibly high quality process’

As recommended by the task force, a single board reviews allegations of clergy misconduct and abuse, and it makes recommendations for a priest’s fitness for ministry to Archbishop Hebda. Known as the Ministerial Review Board, the board also oversees the archdiocese’s monitoring of priests who have been removed from ministry because of abuse or misconduct.

Among the board’s 12 members is Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted, abused and murdered in 1989. A longtime child safety advocate, she knew O’Malley from his work on her son’s investigation, and she praised his 2014 selection to overhaul the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts. In July 2016, she joined the MRB.

“People complain all the time about the problem, but this is an opportunity to do something about it,” she said.

The Catholic Church “has recognized that there’s a problem, and there needs to be a place to report these crimes, and there needs to be a process for what happens,” she said.

In the case of abuse that happened decades ago, law enforcement may decline to prosecute because it’s outside the statute of limitations, or because there’s insufficient evidence. The archdiocese still investigates those claims and determines what to do with the accused.

“It’s an incredibly high quality process,” Wetterling said. “This group is addressing it more deeply and comprehensively than really any organization I’ve seen. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Even if a priest who is removed from ministry is not found guilty of a crime, he would still go before the Ministerial Review Board to receive a determination if he is suitable for ministry. Some priests have returned to ministry when the review board approves, others have not.

If an allegation of child sex abuse against a priest is substantiated, the archdiocese enforces a “zero tolerance” policy, and he will never return to ministry. In some cases, such as that of Curtis Wehmeyer, the Holy See has removed the priest from the clerical state, or “laicized” him.

The archdiocese began disclosing names of credibly accused clergy in 2013. It currently lists 94 men, 33 of whom were accused of abuse that occurred outside of the archdiocese. Of the others, 55 were removed from ministry in 2003 or before.

The archdiocese’s leaders are clear on all of their published materials and in their presentations that all allegations of abuse should be reported immediately to law enforcement. When the archdiocese is notified of an abuse allegation by someone other than law enforcement, it is O’Malley’s responsibility to notify or confirm that law enforcement has been notified. The archdiocese never begins an investigation until law enforcement has completed its own.

As part of the 2014 Task Force recommendations, the archdiocese has also established a policy that prohibits retaliation against anyone who reports, in good faith, abuse of a minor or suspicion of clergy misconduct.

The Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment also aims to provide resources for victims/survivors in the archdiocese. Among Rasmussen’s roles is victim advocacy; she helps local survivors access free counseling through Canvas Health, and she connects them with the appropriate point-person in another diocese if the abuse occurred elsewhere.

After undergoing an internal review of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth earlier this year, Rasmussen determined that the office needed to be restructured. Previously, four people held different roles within the office. Now, four people will each serve as a point person for a geographical section of the archdiocese, as well as be a specialist in a certain area of the office’s work.

Rasmussen wants Catholics to know that the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment is listening to feedback it receives from the survivors, parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions it serves. “The primary reason for the [office] reorganization is because in talking with the, parishes, the victims, the safe environment coordinators, everyone, we heard that we needed to make changes in order to make this more effective,” she said. “And that’s exactly what we did, and we did it in bringing in everybody to provide their input and feedback on making it the most successful.”

Advising that process are a dozen people who work in every facet of the archdiocese. Among them is Fox at St. Bartholomew.

“The [Office for the Protection of Children and Youth] has responded well to results of parish and school audits and feedback from sites,” he said. “We are at a state of reviewing the entire process to ensure parishes and schools continue to meet or exceed the prescribed requirements.”

The office has heard that it has been perceived as more punitive than collaborative, as in parishes are more likely to receive a letter notifying them of a policy infraction than accompaniment in the policy integration process. Rasmussen said that the new staff organization aims directly to address that.

Paula Kaempffer, director of learning at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, said that one of the things the team is exploring is whether to offer modified training for abuse victims/survivors. She’s been told by survivors that some of the material in the VIRTUS training is too difficult to watch.

“I remember [while] seeing it for the first time, we had two faculty and one pastoral staff person walk out because they had been abused,” she said. “It just triggers immensely because they show two perpetrators in it, and it’s really hard to watch. It’s hard to watch for anyone, I think.”

A sexual abuse survivor familiar with the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts told The Catholic Spirit that the E3 training raises people’s awareness about abuse, and that they can’t assume any place is safe. She hopes that increases reporting of suspicious behavior. “We can never catch them all,” said the survivor, who asked that her name be withheld, “but I think we’re doing much better than we have in the past.”

She added: “There have been great strides made in our archdiocese. Putting Tim O’Malley and Janell Rasmussen in the OPCY office staff … has really moved it forward. I think the openness of the archbishop to suggestions has really moved it forward. The 17 protocols, they’ve gone over and above that. I do think that it has raised the awareness of folks to report what’s happening. If you even question something, say something.”

The Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment audits parishes and schools twice a year, and each year it conducts 43 on-site audits; all schools and parishes are visited at least once every seven years. Parishes and schools are also obligated to complete an audit each time there is a change of a pastor or leader.

Audit accountability

As part of the Dallas Charter, the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts are audited annually by the USCCB’s Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection. While that audit process has been in place since the Dallas Charter, the office has received deeper scrutiny from independent external audits conducted by StoneBridge Business Partners, a firm from Rochester, New York. As part of the archdiocese’s settlement agreement with Ramsey County, StoneBridge has been hired to complete three comprehensive reviews of the archdiocese’s compliance with the settlement agreement.

StoneBridge released its results from its first audit in January 2018 and found the archdiocese substantially compliant with the settlement agreement. Among its findings was that 92 percent of the approximately 2,500 people for whom the Essential Three is required were in full compliance. O’Malley and Rasmussen said that they investigated the outstanding 8 percent and found the issue frequently was due to incomplete paperwork, or a parish employee or volunteer being unavailable to complete retraining, due to circumstances such as maternity leave.

Every six months, archdiocesan representatives also file a report with Ramsey County on their compliance with the settlement agreement, and they appear along with Ramsey County Attorney’s Office representatives in court for its review. At each hearing, the judge has found the archdiocese in substantial compliance with the settlement agreement.

While the audits, as well as Ramsey County’s own evaluation, have determined the archdiocese has continued to improve and enforce policies, Johnson said he’s identified three things as ombudsman he would like to see from the archdiocese: emphasis on reaching out to the abuse survivors who are claimants in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy; outreach to people who made allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt during the archdiocese’s investigation, as well as the release of the investigation’s findings; and improvement in the archdiocese’s safe environment training for children.

However, those things don’t detract from the good work the archdiocese has done, he said. He thinks one of the “most critical” changes made since 2014 is having experienced lay leaders at the fore. He said O’Malley and his team have been quick to respond to any request or issue he’s brought to them.

“I strongly believe that the victims/survivors have to be central to the archdiocese’s thinking about how to respond to past instances or how to move forward with this,” he said.

On Sept. 25, the archdiocese’s plan for Chapter 11 reorganization was confirmed by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge. Speaking to victims/survivors following the hearing, their attorney Jeff Anderson said that the archdiocese is “safer and cleaner than any other diocese in America.”

He credited survivors — and their courage — for compelling the archdiocese to strengthen its child protection efforts. “Know that you have … the gift of having saved another child from the horror that you and your families have had to endure,” he told them.

Anderson told The Catholic Spirit that the archdiocese still can make improvements — something Archbishop Hebda and other archdiocesan leaders have acknowledged.

In his testimony during the Sept. 25 confirmation hearing, Archbishop Hebda thanked victims/survivors for “helping to change our Church for the better.”

“You have been the catalyst for needed change,” he said. “The practice, procedures and audits we have adopted to stop future abuse may not be enough to restore your trust or belief in the Church — understandably so — but the changes you insisted upon are keeping kids safe now. Thank you for that.”

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