Ramsey County oversight is ending, but leaders say Church is ready to hold itself accountable

| January 25, 2020 | 0 Comments

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks Jan. 23 at the Conference for Restorative Justice and Reconciliation at the Holiday Inn & Suites, Lake Elmo. The event was hosted by the hosted by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and part of the archdiocese’s settlement agreement with Ramsey County.

A marathon with no finish line.

That’s the metaphor John Choi uses for the Church’s safe environment efforts.

Choi, the Ramsey County attorney since 2011, and his staff have been deeply involved in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ efforts over the past four years to improve its policies, procedures and practices around protecting children from sexual abuse.

The period of his office’s official oversight is almost over. However, Choi’s convinced that the strides taken by the archdiocese have resulted in a sustainable culture change that makes it possible for the archdiocese to continue to move in the right direction. And that includes an ever-present effort to improve what’s already been done.

“(The archdiocese has) accomplished a culture in which they’re constantly evaluating themselves in terms of the settlement agreement and the promises they’ve made and the progress that they’re undertaking,” he told The Catholic Spirit Jan. 20. “Just a lot of things have changed for the better, and it wouldn’t have changed unless we would have come to this arrangement where we came to a settlement agreement.”

That doesn’t, however, mean that everything is done, he cautioned. People should not believe “that somehow all the efforts are completed.”

“If the goal is to get to the top of the mountain,” he said, “we continue that climb.”

‘No child ever again’

In December 2015, Ramsey County and the archdiocese settled a civil petition against the archdiocese filed earlier that year for how it handled a case of clergy sexual abuse in the early 2010s. With that settlement was a 24-page settlement agreement outlining efforts the archdiocese agreed to take to improve its child protection practices.

The agreement stated a straightforward goal: “that no child ever again be the victim of clergy sexual abuse.” 

Choi announced the settlement agreement, as did Archbishop Bernard Hebda, whom Pope Francis appointed to lead the archdiocese following the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché, 10 days after Ramsey County filed the charges.

Archbishop Hebda and other archdiocesan leaders who crafted the settlement agreement with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office supported robust requirements in order to show the archdiocese was serious about child protection and wanted the county to vouch to the public for the progress made, the archbishop said.

Already the archdiocese was in a process of evaluating its safe environment policies and procedures and trying to learn from past mistakes. In 2013, Archbishop Nienstedt commissioned a firm to review clergy files for all accusations of abuse. Meanwhile, he established a task force to study the archdiocese’s handling of clergy abuse and misconduct, and to make specific recommendations to improve policies and procedures. 

Among those recommendations was that a layperson oversee child protection efforts and report directly to the archbishop. In 2014, Tim O’Malley, a former judge and Minnesota law enforcement leader, was appointed to the new position of director of ministerial standards and safe environment, and was tasked with developing the office and creating a team.

Meanwhile, the archdiocese had settled in October 2014 with “Doe 1,” a clergy victim-survivor who was the first to file a lawsuit against the archdiocese following the state’s 2013 lifting for three years of the statute of limitations on child sex abuse. (More than 450 victim-survivors would eventually file claims, and the archdiocese entered bankruptcy in 2015 as a means to provide financial restitution equitably. It emerged from bankruptcy in December 2018.) The settlement with Doe 1 included 17 protocols the archdiocese agreed to follow that strengthen its child protection efforts.

When the archdiocese settled with Ramsey County a year later, the agreement — essentially a child protection plan — required the archdiocese to continue with those 17 protocols and other policies, but it also asked it to create a comprehensive set of policies available online, increase the involvement of lay Catholics and engage in restorative justice with victim-survivors. It also gave the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office oversight of the plan. The parties originally agreed to three years of oversight, but the settlement agreement was amended and the oversight period extended in July 2016, when Ramsey County dropped criminal charges related to the same case.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda speaks at a news conference following the Dec. 18, 2015, filing of a settlement agreement between the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. Standing with him are Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Tim O’Malley, the director of the archdiocese’s Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“By 2016, efforts to improve were underway, and the archdiocese was under a lot of scrutiny. No doubt, even more intense scrutiny was ahead. Therein lay the opportunity,” O’Malley said. “With Ramsey County holding us accountable and so much focused attention on what was happening, the time was ripe for making lasting, institutional changes to our safe environment culture.”

Since the agreement was made, the archdiocese has appeared before a Ramsey County Court judge every six months to report on its progress in meeting the terms of the settlement agreement. At each hearing, the judge has found the archdiocese compliant with the agreement.

The archdiocese’s final court appearance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 28. Like the others, it will be in the Ramsey County Courthouse before Judge Teresa Warner. If she agrees the archdiocese has fulfilled the requirements of the agreement, it will expire. And with the agreement’s end, Ramsey County’s oversight also ends.

Both the archdiocese and Ramsey County say they feel confident that the agreement has served its purpose — that the archdiocese has experienced significant culture change and that child protection is an utmost priority.

“It wasn’t a check-the-box for them,” Choi said of the agreement’s terms, which he calls “best practice across the country.” 

“I believe they (the archdiocesan leaders) recognize that this was a part of really changing their culture, creating some investments in the infrastructure around their decision-making and response,” he said. “As they fundamentally change, I have confidence that those things moving forward will be better.”

Laity’s role essential

As the agreement comes to a close, Choi is pleased with the outcome, and he notes that the past four years could have looked very different.

The relationship between the archdiocese and his office was initially adversarial. Instead of working together to settle and dismiss the charges and progressing toward an institutional culture change, the parties could have litigated, Choi said. And, he thinks, the legal complexity of the case would have taken it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Quite frankly, if we were still moving forward with our original plans to seek a criminal conviction, we’d probably still be litigating that,” he said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks at the Ramsey County Courthouse Jan. 5, 2018, 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

On that path, “none of the progress that’s happened over the course of the past few years would have happened at all, because we would instead be putting our energy into fighting over a conviction” that at most would have resulted in a fine and some form of probation. “That result would have been very empty as compared to the fullness of what the settlement agreement has accomplished,” he said.

Much of Choi’s confidence in the archdiocese’s future comes from greater lay involvement in the creation and execution of its safe environment protocols. For years, the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts were handled by a single priest; now two archdiocesan offices collaborate to create and implement policies, as well as investigate misconduct allegations.

“What was happening before was that the laity was not involved. In fact, in many instances they were just never informed of situations involving clergy sex abuse or any situations involving clergy misconduct,” he said.

O’Malley’s entire team is comprised of laypeople bringing important backgrounds to their work. His deputy is Janell Rasmussen, who previously worked for the BCA and coordinated the state’s AMBER Alert program. The office’s assistant director and lead investigator, Michael Campion, is a former BCA superintendent and a former director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

They’re supported by the Office for the Protection of Children and Young Adults, which includes four program liaisons who work with parishes to help them implement and maintain compliance with the archdiocesan policies. Also in that office is a position created last year: the outreach coordinator for restorative justice and abuse prevention, held by Paula Kaempffer, herself an abuse survivor. 

In addition, Tom Johnson, a Minneapolis attorney, serves as an independent, volunteer ombudsman to listen to and advocate for victim-survivors. The office also provides victim-survivor assistance through Canvas Health, an independent mental health care provider.

Advising the archbishop on all misconduct accusations is the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board, also comprised of mostly lay people, including abuse victim-survivors, and non-Catholics, such as longtime child advocate Patty Wetterling. The archdiocese’s board of directors and finance board have also assumed more responsibility in safe environment accountability, Choi said.

Father Daniel Griffith, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, is the archdiocese’s liaison for restorative justice, and he is collaborating with several lay leaders — among them former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske and Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, to spread restorative justice in the local parishes.

The need for lay involvement extends into every parish, school and institution, leaders said. The archdiocese requires all Church employees and volunteers to be mandatory reporters. Meanwhile, clergy and lay employees or volunteers have to complete safe environment training and policy commitment, commonly known as the “Essential Three,” or “E3”: VIRTUS training, a criminal background check and signing the archdiocese’s code of conduct.

“For some, it might be a little bit cumbersome, but they’re all very much necessary to create this environment in which we do everything possible to ensure the protection of children and others from any type of abuse,” Choi said.

‘The right thing to do’

From the beginning, archdiocesan leaders approached the settlement agreement “as what’s the right thing to do, not necessarily what is Ramsey County going to ask us to do,” Archbishop Hebda said, noting that the archdiocese went beyond what might have been expected of them.

“We wanted to show our resolve and have someone be able to verify the progress that was being made. And that’s what I think we’ve seen at the end of this time period,” he said. “Hopefully we have in place a way of moving forward that has already embedded accountability into what we do.”

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, left, talks Feb. 1 at St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview with Father Dan Griffith, foreground, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, and Mark Umbreit, center, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, left, talks Feb. 1, 2019, at St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview with Father Dan Griffith, foreground, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, and Mark Umbreit, center, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Joe Ruff / The Catholic Spirit

Trust and transparency continue to be a challenge for the Church, and on the local level, Ramsey County has been the check. Archbishop Hebda agrees with Choi that the laity has a major role to play in making sure this changed culture persists.

“We’ve come to see that transparency is not just something imposed on us, but it’s something that serves our goal of protecting children and restoring trust among Catholics and in the community,” he said.

Among Choi’s concerns is that the archdiocese must be able to sustain the culture change through inevitable leadership transitions, but he trusts its front-of-mind.

“I do believe it’s a big priority of the archdiocese to be thinking about leadership transition and to be thinking about their future,” he said.

Without Ramsey County’s oversight, the Church must hold itself accountable, Choi said, and the laity must assume that responsibility.

“That’s the critical piece of it,” he said. “If people just want to wash their hands of it and say ‘everything is taken care of (and) I don’t have to do anything,’ that’s not going to be a recipe for success. But if people are recognizing that the Church needs the help of the faithful to be successful, then that’s even better.”

He added: “We obviously have to continue our efforts. The archdiocese will be doing that now without the court order, but I believe that they’re very well poised and positioned to continue the progress.”

How did we get here?

In June 2012, then-Father Curtis Wehmeyer was arrested at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, where he was pastor at the time, for criminal sexual conduct. In 2013, he pleaded guilty in a Minnesota court of sexually abusing two brothers at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul in 2010. He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a third brother in a Wisconsin court in 2015. He was imprisoned and laicized. The victim-survivors were parishioners and the sons of one of Wehmeyer’s staff members.

While he is not known to have abused anyone else, Wehmeyer had previously violated the archdiocese’s misconduct policies. Driven in large part by information its former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, shared with media, questions arose around how well archdiocesan officials had adhered to its own safe environment policies. 

In October 2013, The St. Paul Police launched an investigation into the archdiocese. On June 5, 2015, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office filed six criminal charges and a civil petition against the archdiocese as a corporation. The charges included six gross misdemeanors: three counts of contributing to the need for protection or services for a minor, and three counts of contributing to a minor’s status as a juvenile petty offender or delinquency.

Ten days after the charges were filed, Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché resigned, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda was appointed, temporarily at first, to lead the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (Pope Francis made the role permanent the following year.)

In December 2015, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and archdiocese settled the civil charges with a 24-page agreement that outlined a litany of steps the archdiocese was already taking or agreed to take to ensure children were safe in its parishes and schools. Among them was the county’s oversight for the first three years.

In July 2016, the county dropped criminal charges tied to the same case, and the settlement agreement was amended to include four years of county oversight, which is slated to end next month, following a Jan. 28 court hearing where the archdiocese will report its progress.

Per the agreement, archdiocesan leaders have appeared in court every six months to report on their progress to fulfill the agreement’s requirements. At all seven previous hearings, a judge has determined that the archdiocese has demonstrated “substantial compliance” with the settlement agreement.


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