Archdiocese, county acknowledge safe environment progress and the abuse victims whose case made it happen

| January 29, 2020 | 0 Comments

DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
Joy Hoffman greets Archbishop Bernard Hebda near the end of a Jan. 28 press conference at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in downtown St. Paul announcing
the end of a settlement agreement between the county and the Archdiocese of
St. Paul and Minneapolis. Hoffman’s three sons were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer while he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and she was an employee.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has undergone an authentic culture change in how it works to protect children and respond to victim-survivors, Ramsey County officials and a Ramsey County Court judge said Jan. 28.

And that view is shared by members of the Hoffman family, whose abuse case resulted in the archdiocese’s legally-binding commitment to bolster its efforts to protect children from sexual abuse.

“Actions speak louder than words, and in this case, there is significant action,” Ramsey County Judge Teresa Warner said at a Jan. 28 court hearing, during which she dismissed the case, officially ending four years of Ramsey County’s oversight of the archdiocese’s safe environment policies and procedures.

At the hearing, the archdiocese filed its final six-month report with the court outlining its safe environment progress as it related to the terms of a 2015 settlement agreement with the county that included oversight. The report included a summary of an external audit that found the archdiocese substantially compliant with the agreement, as well as the archdiocese’s plan for continued safe environment efforts, indicating its leaders’ intent to create long-lasting change.

Warner said the archdiocese “exceeded the spirit” of the settlement agreement, and that with the safe environment plan, “safeguards are in place that the protection of children is paramount” over the protection of an institution.

“Today isn’t an end to the agreement. I see it as a beginning,” she said. “This safe environment plan points to the changes that have been made in putting children first.”

Ramsey County Assistant Attorney Thomas Ring also filed a document on behalf of the county. In preparation for the final hearing, he and Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Stephanie Wiersma interviewed more than 50 stakeholders in the archdiocese about its culture as it relates to child protection and responding to victim-survivors. The resulting 25-page “Cultural Assessment Report” includes analysis of different facets of the archdiocese, from priests to the laity and from seminaries to schools.

“It really is impressive, not only the effort but the progress that is seen,” Ring said of the assessment. “Each person we interviewed said children are safer in the archdiocese than they were four years ago.”

The report included recommendations for areas of growth and improvement, noting “there is more that can be done to protect children and provide healing.” It also called for the archdiocese to make a public commitment to “continued forward movement and public accountability.”

Attending the hearing were Archbishop Bernard Hebda; Bishop Andrew Cozzens; Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment; Janell Rasmussen, deputy director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment; and the archdiocese’ s attorney Joseph Dixon of Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis. Appearing for the county were Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Ring and Wiersma.

Also attending were child-victim advocate Patty Wetterling, a member of the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, and Frank Meuers, director of the southwest Minnesota chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Meuers has been advising the archdiocese in its outreach to victim-survivors.

Sitting in the courtroom’s front row were Joy Hoffman and three of her sons, Ben, Stephen and Luke. The brothers are victim-survivors of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer and the victims in the case that led Ramsey County to file criminal and civil charges against the archdiocese for its failure in protecting them. Wehmeyer was their pastor at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. Joy also works for the parish, and Wehmeyer was her boss at the time the abuse occurred.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office filed the charges in June 2015. In December 2015, Ramsey County and the archdiocese settled the civil charges with an agreement that gave the RCAO oversight of its safe environment efforts for three years. Six months later, in July 2016, Ramsey County dropped the criminal charges and the parties extended the terms of the settlement agreement to four years.

At the Jan. 28 hearing, Joy Hoffman thanked county and archdiocesan leaders who have worked to make sure what happened to her sons wouldn’t happen to anyone else. She expressed that gratitude again at a press conference following the court hearing.

At the press conference, Choi praised the archdiocese’s work over the past four years. He said the agreement and process was unique and historic, and the result of creativity and hard work.

He also acknowledged the Hoffmans’ presence and role in the case. Now in their 20s, the brothers “belong to just an amazing family,” he said. “I have gotten to know this family and I’m just inspired by the journey that they’ve been on and where they were. And I want to tell everybody, in case anybody doesn’t understand the harm that sexual violence does to a human being, the things that happened to this family were unimaginable.”

At the press conference, Archbishop Hebda said he is sorry the Hoffman family “has had to endure so much hurt and pain.”

“I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: We failed you. The archdiocese that I lead and love, the archdiocese that you trusted, failed to protect you in a way that has had a huge impact on your lives. And I’ll always be sorry for the harm caused to your family and loved ones, to other victim-survivors and indeed, to this community.”

He said he is grateful they reported their abuse.

“Your courage, when this happened and now, inspires me and those with whom I work,” he said. “I am confident you have helped others to come forward. I am also grateful to you and other survivors who have reached out and met with me. What you have shared during our time together has changed me. You have helped me to be a better priest, a better bishop and a better, more understanding human being.”

At the press conference, Joy publicly thanked her sons for their courage and perseverance “to see that justice is done.”

“I think it has brought us an instance of healing, a sense of hope and assurance that nothing like this will ever happen again, and that we have safety in our parish communities,” she said.

Ben Hoffman told The Catholic Spirit that the end of the settlement agreement leaves him with a sense of peace.

It’s “just kind of a turning of a page, in a sense, to be able to begin the next chapter,” he said. “Not saying that it’s something that we’re going to forget, but just like any book, you remember the chapters, but you always turn to the next page in a sense.”

He added: “It gives me peace to know that I can go to Church with my son and be at peace knowing that he’s safe, and the archdiocese in its current state brings me tremendous joy.”

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