New ombudsman draws on legal, advocacy experience

| February 8, 2018 | 0 Comments

Three decades ago, Tom Johnson was asked to help with a string of child sexual abuse allegations in Scott County, which includes Belle Plaine, Prior Lake and Shakopee. The investigation had been bungled, and among the mistakes was the way children had been questioned. By the time Johnson was involved, people’s stories had changed numerous times, allegations grew to include murder, and additional investigators had to sift through what was real and what was fabricated.

Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson

Johnson was in his second term as Hennepin County attorney, and one of his takeaways from the case was the need to improve how authorities treated children who might have been sexually abused. That led him in 1988 to co-found CornerHouse, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit focused on child advocacy, with a physical “house” where children who are part of abuse investigations are evaluated by experts. Its groundbreaking model has been replicated internationally, and it is considered the gold standard in forensic interviewing for children and vulnerable adults.

Now a principal attorney at Gray Plant Mooty law firm in Minneapolis, Johnson, 72, isn’t boastful about his accomplishments — 12 years as the Hennepin County attorney, an earlier stint on the Minneapolis City Council, degrees from the University of Minnesota followed by a master of laws degree (with distinction) from the esteemed London School of Economics, and a satisfying law career.

He is, however, warm and affable, someone who can put others at ease. And that — coupled with his experience investigating child sex crimes — made him the man both the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis wanted to serve as an independent, volunteer ombudsman to listen to and advocate for victims/survivors who might bring new allegations against clergy in the archdiocese.

“County Attorney [John] Choi and I have known Tom for many years,” said Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. “Tom’s compassion for others, as well as his lifelong commitment to justice and, in particular, his lifelong commitment to protecting children made him our clear first choice.”

The role is important “because we want to make sure that everyone has a place to turn if they have either concerns, or if they need help of any kind,” he added. “I get that there are people who, for very good reasons, are hesitant to turn directly to the archdiocese, but that doesn’t mean we give up on trying to fulfill our responsibilities and help everyone we can. Tom gives them that option.”

Johnson is the first to hold the role, which was mandated by the 2015 settlement agreement between the archdiocese and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office on civil charges alleging that the archdiocese had failed to protect children in the case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.

The settlement didn’t require an ombudsperson — which it described as someone to “provide an outside resource for victims of sexual abuse” — until 2020, when the agreement expires. But O’Malley wanted someone much sooner.

“The sooner we put Tom in place, the sooner he’d be able to help people,” he said, “so why wait?”

Range of experience

Johnson, who is married and has four adult children and three grandchildren, grew up on a dairy farm near Floodwood, 45 miles west of Duluth. There he learned to hunt and fish, and he developed a love for the outdoors that would influence later legal work in environmental law and land-use management. He earned an undergraduate degree in physics and entered law school during the Vietnam War. He started his law career as a patent lawyer, but said he also did a lot of poverty law, which focuses on people’s rights to government benefits.

He ran for Minneapolis City Council and served two, two-year terms. He briefly returned to law before running for Hennepin County Attorney. He was 33 when he was elected. After serving three terms in the role, he began his career with Gray Plant Mooty, but took a yearlong sabbatical to attend the London School of Economics, supported by a Bush Foundation fellowship.

Johnson continued to practice law full time until 1998, when he dialed back his hours to work as the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, a nonprofit focused on improving the criminal justice system. He served in that role for a decade, during which he oversaw what he described as one of the largest multi-faceted research projects of its kind on racial disparities in the U.S. He also taught a course on criminal justice at the University of St. Thomas’ law school in Minneapolis.

His interest in criminal justice has to do with fairness, he said.

“I think our system too often fails the victim, too often fails the offender, in the sense of our focus is, in my view, far too heavy on retribution and punishment, even after the person has received their just desserts,” he said. “So much of it has to do with alcohol and drugs, and [it’s important] to get people beyond that point in their lives where they’re failing because of an addiction.”

He noted that it was during his time as the county attorney that the problem of child sexual abuse was being uncovered nationwide. Before then, “not only was it thought to be a taboo that people would violate children sexually, but you didn’t even talk about it,” he said.

“So, none of it surfaced publicly until the late 70s, early 80s.”

‘A real kindness’

Johnson was approached about the ombudsperson position by both Choi and O’Malley. He was publicly named as the ombudsman during a Jan. 5 Ramsey County court hearing to review the archdiocese’s compliance with the agreement.

Following the hearing, Choi emphasized to reporters that Johnson’s role is independent from the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and the archdiocese. “He reports to no one, other than just his wanting to be a part of this process and be a resource for anybody in this community, within this archdiocese, who has any complaints or needs assistance navigating some issue in respect to something that’s happened to them or to a family member,” he said.

Asked why he took the position, Johnson became emotional while recalling a teenage boy he suspected had been abused in the high-profile Minneapolis Children Theatre Company and School case in the early 1980s. He had encouraged the boy to disclose the abuse, but he didn’t. A few years later, he committed suicide.

Working closely with Johnson on that Children Theatre Company and School case was Michael Campion, then the case’s lead investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Like O’Malley, Campion went on to serve as BCA superintendent and now works alongside him as the archdiocese’s assistant director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment.

Campion described Johnson as “a very exacting prosecutor,” but one who also had “an enormous amount of compassion for people, particularly victims.”

“That combination served him well, and certainly served the whole Children’s Theatre matter … in a very successful manner,” he said, noting that Johnson is widely respected among law enforcement, prosecutors and defenders, as well as people who work with victims, especially because of his contribution to CornerHouse.

“There’s a real kindness about him,” Campion added. “He has a real extraordinary combination of personal characteristics that make him unique.”

Johnson is pleased to be collaborating again with Campion, as well as O’Malley, both of whom he called “the real McCoy.” He also holds Choi in the highest regard. Knowing he’s working with people of integrity “made accepting this position easier,” he said.

Jeri Boisvert, chairwoman of the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, which reviews clergy misconduct, has known Johnson since he was county attorney, and she worked with him while he was leading the Council on Crime and Justice. She said she expects that people who approach him will feel comfortable, safe and supported.

“This guy really is something,” said Boisvert, former head of the Minnesota Office of Justice and a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. “He’s got the most wonderful combination of skills. He’s just perfect for this job.”

Available to listen

Johnson is unaware of anyone who holds a similar ombudsperson position for the reporting of clergy sex abuse allegations, which means that he’s figuring out what the job entails, while establishing a record-keeping system and best practices. In the month that he’s been in the volunteer position, he’s received a handful of calls, he said.

“If it’s two people I can help, that’s two people,” he said. “It’s not a numbers game.”

Johnson said he expects to connect with four categories of people: first, clergy abuse victims/survivors; second, people with connections to parishes and Catholic schools who might have observed “something or another that they think is untoward” that they want to discuss; third, people who are concerned about abuse that might have happened to a family member or friend; and fourth, people who are concerned about how the archdiocese is handling claims of sexual abuse.

Johnson emphasized that his role is to maintain confidentiality, and, unlike most Church personnel, he is not a mandated reporter. He expects that he might serve as a listening ear to some victims/survivors who have never before shared their story, but need to tell someone. He noted that he has friends who are clergy sexual abuse survivors.

“It’s most important that [victims/survivors] find someone whom they can tell their story to,” he said. “Then we can figure out what to do. Maybe they need time. Maybe we can get them working with someone who can bring them further along in terms of their comfort in dealing with it. I don’t know. These are going to all be so unique. That’s why [confidentiality] is so important.”

He would also help people who need to report an allegation of sexual abuse connect with law enforcement, whom the archdiocese emphasizes should be people’s first call.

Johnson is also Catholic — as of less than two years ago. He was raised Protestant, but his wife is Catholic, and they raised their children in the faith. He joined the Church in 2016 on Labor Day weekend at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. His esteem for his pastor, Father Daniel Griffith, plays a role in why he took the ombudsperson role, he said. By helping the Church address clergy sexual abuse, he also hopes to help restore trust in the priesthood and lift the “black cloud” that’s fallen, even on good priests.

He knows that for abuse victims/survivors, abuse can “shape their life.” He wants them to know that they’ll have a healing experience from telling someone about their abuse.

“If I can be that person, I’ll listen,” he said.

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