Dialogue paved road to dropped criminal charges

| Archbishop Bernard Hebda | August 2, 2016

ArchbishopHebdaOfficialPortrait

July 20, 2016, was an important day for this local Church. In open court, the archdiocese reported significant progress on its efforts under the Civil Settlement Agreement — reached and announced last December — to create the safest environment possible for children. Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner then commended the archdiocese and described our actions taken in concert with the Ramsey County attorney as “the right thing to do.”

A few moments later, in that same courtroom, it was announced that Ramsey County Attorney John Choi would be dismissing the criminal case later in the day. I’m convinced the fair resolution of those charges was an answer to the prayers of so many of you throughout the archdiocese, and for that I am most grateful.

Many have asked how it came to be that the Ramsey County attorney dropped the criminal charges. It was a long, involved process of calm dialogue, relationship-building and respect. That process began last fall when we attempted to negotiate a resolution of both the criminal and civil cases. I personally spent hours with Mr. Choi and his team and know that the archdiocesan staff and attorneys spent many more. I continue to be grateful that from the time of our very first meeting, we were able to agree on the paramount goal of protecting children.

However, from the outset, we disagreed with the county attorney over one important thing: an insistence that the archdiocese plead guilty to the criminal charges in some way, shape or form. The simple truth is that if we believed we were guilty, we would have pled guilty. But, I had received advice from experts in this area of criminal law and discussed the matter with the various consultative bodies in the archdiocese, such as the Finance Council, the Board of the Corporation and the College of Consultors. There was a broad consensus that the archdiocese was not guilty of a crime.

To be clear, the archdiocese failed the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and their family — and for that we are deeply sorry. A failure, however, isn’t the same as a crime. That is a legal question, not a moral question. We were willing to admit to failures and even moral culpability, but we could not go into court to plead guilty to a crime we did not commit. Committing a crime implies a criminal intent and is something altogether different from failing. On that single important point — the admission or denial of criminal guilt — the negotiations failed.

Even though we were unable to agree to a resolution at that time to address both the criminal and civil charges, we did forge a positive working relationship with Ramsey County and agreed to move forward to settle the civil matter. Settlement on the civil side would not end litigation, but it would protect children and demonstrate our willingness to be held accountable. With that in mind, we negotiated a comprehensive Civil Settlement Agreement that was deemed to be a “landmark” agreement, going well beyond what could have been required after civil litigation. In particular, it allowed the court to verify the archdiocese’s compliance with its commitments.

Still, the criminal case remained. Given our principled disagreement with the county attorney about whether our conduct constituted a crime, we had to begin to prepare our defense. On Jan. 29, we provided the county attorney with a motion to dismiss that set forth our legal reasoning as to why we were not guilty of a crime. About two months later, on March 21, the Ramsey County attorney provided us with a memorandum outlining his legal arguments. Two weeks later, on April 4, we provided him a reply to those arguments. (Those three documents can now be found on Ramsey County’s website.)

While I was convinced that our arguments would prevail in court, the Ramsey County attorney continued to insist that the archdiocese plead guilty. In early April, however, there was an important breakthrough: The parties agreed to mediate the case. This allowed us to resume our efforts to achieve a just resolution through dialogue. Together, we chose two highly respected and experienced jurists as mediators: Jim Rosenbaum, a former chief judge of the United States District Court, and Kathleen Gearin, a former chief judge of Ramsey County District Court. They generously agreed to participate, bringing both sides together on May 18 in a couple of conference rooms in downtown Minneapolis.

I am very grateful that on that day I was joined by, and had the wise counsel of, two of our Corporate Board members, Karen Rauenhorst and Brian Short; the Archdiocesan Finance Council chair, Tom Abood; the archdiocesan director of the Office for Ministerial Standards, Tim O’Malley; and our attorney, Joe Dixon. Our team was supported by Bishop Andrew Cozzens and a host of consultors who remained available for telephone contact throughout the day and late into the evening. The county attorney was accompanied by an experienced team as well. The mediators did a phenomenal job shuttling back and forth to help both sides understand what the law was and what justice required.

After 15 hours of hard work, we arrived at a resolution that committed the archdiocese to a public admission of our failures to protect the three children abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer and to enhancements to the Civil Settlement Agreement, and that also committed Ramsey County to a dismissal of the criminal charges.

I want to personally express my gratitude to Judge Gearin and Judge Rosenbaum for their vital role in helping us all achieve a just resolution for the victims and the community. Although John Choi and I may not have seen eye to eye on some legal issues, I am also most grateful to him for his willingness to work collaboratively through such complex issues and for giving us an opportunity to prove ourselves and earn his trust, as well as that of the public. I am grateful as well to the members of the two teams who contributed their time, energy and expertise to this serious work. I am also deeply appreciative of the hours of eucharistic adoration offered by our staff.

I was pleased to hear in court on July 20 that the young men who were abused, as well as their family members, were supportive of the resolution that resulted from the mediation. I am profoundly sorry for our failures to protect them and pledge to always be mindful of our past so we never repeat it. I remain grateful for their courage in coming forward and preventing others from being hurt. Their strength and commitment should inspire us all and serve as a reminder of our duty to protect God’s children.

El Dialogo fue el camino para que los cargos fueran retirados


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