Judge, Ramsey County: Archdiocese honoring ‘spirit of settlement’

| January 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks at the Ramsey County Courthouse Jan. 5 following a hearing on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ compliance with a 2015 settlement agreement. Looking on, from right, are Archbishop Bernard Hebda and newly named ombudsperson Thomas Johnson. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A Ramsey County Court judge praised the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ efforts to protect children, saying during a Jan. 5 hearing that she saw examples of the archdiocese “not only honoring the letter of the agreement, but the spirit of the agreement.”

Judge Teresa Warner also called the archdiocese’s ongoing relationship with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office “impressive.”

“The result that we hoped for is being achieved little by little,” she said.

The hearing updated the judge on the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts in the past six months, which included an independent, external audit that found the archdiocese was substantially compliant with the terms of a settlement agreement the archdiocese reached with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in December 2015.

Assistant County Attorney Thomas Ring told Judge Warner that in the past two years, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and the archdiocese “have developed a relationship of mutual confidence” and “trust.”

The archdiocese “put its shoulder to the work, which so needed to be done,” Ring said.

The 40-minute hearing fulfilled an obligation the settlement agreement on charges the county had filed against the archdiocese in June 2015. The charges alleged that the archdiocese had been negligent in the case of three brothers who were sexually abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer in 2010 and 2011.

The settlement agreement was amended in June 2016 at the same time Ramsey County dismissed criminal charges it had filed against the archdiocese in the same case.

The Jan. 5 report was the fourth six-month report the archdiocese and Ramsey County Attorney’s Office have presented in Ramsey County Court.

Warner said that the collaboration between the archdiocese and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office showed “an example of not forgetting why you’re here.”

“Those voices are still being heard,” she said of Wehmeyer’s victims, adding that “good work is being done to make sure this never happens again.”

In August, New York-based StoneBridge Business Partners conducted an in-person audit of the archdiocese’s policies and procedures and compliance. The audit included interviews with at least 30 archdiocesan leaders, employees, pastors, lay leaders and school representatives, as well as on-site visits at or information requests from 23 parishes and Catholic schools in the archdiocese. In a report the archdiocese published on its website Jan. 5, StoneBridge outlined the audit’s objective and scope, procedures and information obtained.

During the hearing, the archdiocese’s attorney announced the archdiocese and Ramsey County Attorney’s Office have selected former Hennepin County Attorney Thomas Johnson to serve as an ombudsperson. His role is independent of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and archdiocese, and he’s available as a confidential resource for victim/survivors, as well as people who have a concern about how a report to the archdiocese is being handled.

County attorney satisfied

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Archbishop Bernard Hebda attended the hearing, and, along with Johnson, spoke to media afterward.

Choi said that he wanted to publicly express his satisfaction with the archdiocese’s efforts.

Echoing Warner’s comments, Choi said, “Certainly, the archdiocese has gone beyond the letter of the settlement agreement, but they really have embraced the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish. The big picture at the end of the day is to ensure that what happened in the underlying case, in respect to the three victims in that family, never happens again, and significant efforts have been made.”

Choi also encouraged the archdiocese to continue its efforts, calling them “critical.”

Archbishop Hebda also reacted positively to the hearing.

“While the archdiocese continues to face challenges,” he said, alluding to its ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, “today was a real bright spot, as we have the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to protecting children and creating and maintaining safe environments.”

He expressed gratitude to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and Choi “for this opportunity turn a great challenge into something that’s much greater — that we’re able not only to improve what we’re able to do to protect children, but also demonstrate to our community our sincere commitment.”

Choi also commended the archdiocese’s restorative justice efforts with victims, noting that the archdiocese has engaged some worldwide leaders in its outreach.

“I’m just really heartened by how some of those things are coming together and the support of the archbishop for that,” he said. “You never know what will happen with restorative justice, but the process is in place, and people are talking and listening, and talking to each other.”

Audit findings

Among StoneBridge’s findings was that 92 percent of the approximately 2,500 Church personnel in the archdiocese are fully in compliance with the “Essential Three” requirements of a background check, VIRTUS training and signing a Code of Conduct.

During the hearing, Warner called the 92 percent rate “good,” but asked for an explanation for it being less than 100 percent. Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, said the rate had been mostly affected by missing or incomplete paperwork at parishes and schools, and that the internal audit team has adjusted its procedures for examining documentation to work toward 100 percent fully documented “E3” compliance.

At the end of the hearing, Warner said that with the 92 percent compliance rating, “there’s room for improvement, but the bar was set pretty high.” Ring said that the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office was satisfied with the rate.

Speaking after the hearing, Choi affirmed that the 92 percent rate was good, “and we’ll continue to work … to get it to 100 percent.”

He added: “The work is never really done in terms of creating an organization and archdiocese that strives for perfection.”

“The archdiocese wasn’t happy with 92 percent, either,” Archbishop Hebda interjected.

During the hearing, O’Malley also testified to the archdiocese’s efforts in educating fourth-year major seminarians about the trauma experienced by clergy sexual abuse victims/survivors through a two-hour presentation his office hosted at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, during which a survivor shared his story.

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