A Ramsey County judge decided Thursday to give the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona more time to turn over thousands of documents on priests accused of child sexual abuse.
However, Judge John Van de North did not postpone the depositions of Archbishop John Nienstedt, set for April 2, and the Rev. Kevin McDonough, former vicar general, set for April 16.
Daniel Haws, an attorney for the archdiocese, said church officials need more time to review an estimated 60,000 pages of documents before providing them to attorneys representing a man who says he was sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the mid-1970s. "We want to try and do this but we physically cannot do it," Haws said.
Van de North said that church lawyers should provide as many relevant documents as possible before the depositions, and if more documents surface later, the plaintiff's attorneys could ask to question Nienstedt and McDonough again.
Haws, the archdiocese lawyer, said that more than 20 people, including a lawyer who has represented the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, are reviewing the documents.
The Milwaukee lawyer, Francis LoCoco, sat next to the archdiocese's lawyers at today's hearing. His appearance came as a surprise to victims' attorneys and raised questions about the archdiocese's legal strategy, given that the Milwaukee archdiocese filed for bankruptcy after a series of clergy sexual abuse lawsuits.
After the hearing, Twin Cities archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said there are no plans to file for bankruptcy here. He called LoCoco a "file disclosure specialist" and said his role is to review the documents to protect the names of victims. He said he did not know how much money the archdiocese has spent on its legal defense but said that insurance covers some of it.
The case has exposed raw emotion on both sides over the handling of clergy abuse cases.
Prominent victims' attorney Jeff Anderson began his work on abuse cases in the 1980s by investigating Adamson, the same priest accused in the current suit. Anderson found at the time that church leaders kept Adamson in ministry despite his admitted abuse.
That case, one of the first public clergy abuse lawsuits in the nation, shocked many local Catholics who didn't realize at the time that bishops had moved abusive priests from parish to parish.
In court before today's hearing, Anderson responded angrily to a comment by an archdiocese attorney that the church was focused on helping victims. "You guys have never been interested in protecting the survivors," Anderson said. The lawyers then stared at each other in silence until the judge arrived.
The alleged victim in the case has accused the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on allegedly abusive priests secret. The lawsuit has already led to the release of the names of priests deemed "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse by church officials.
The archdiocese has faced intense scrutiny for months after an MPR News investigation found top church leaders gave extra payments to abusive priests, failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual interest in young men, and did not report alleged abuse by the Rev. Clarence Vavra and former priest Harry Walsh.
Vavra lives half a block from a school and is now under criminal investigation for alleged child sexual abuse in the 1970s on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Vavra admitted to the abuse in the mid-1990s, according to a report in his clergy file, but no one contacted police.
Walsh taught sex education to at-risk teenagers and vulnerable adults in Wright County. He was fired after the MPR News report showed that two people had accused Walsh of sexually abusing them as children.
Disputes over documents
At today's hearing, Judge Van de North rejected requests by church lawyers to place all of the documents under seal. Instead, the documents will be reviewed first by both sides to look for information that should not be released to the public, such as the names of victims.
Van de North also rejected a request by a Winona diocese attorney to block the deposition of Bishop Robert Brom, who served as the vicar general in Winona. Brom later served as Bishop of Duluth and of San Diego, Calif. He is now retired and lives in California.
Most of the disputes about other documents will be settled by a court-appointed special master. Retired judge Robert Schumacher will serve in that role for the next several months.
Among Schumacher's first tasks will be deciding whether to allow the archdiocese to take the depositions of the alleged victim's parents. Church lawyers have said the depositions are needed to look for evidence that the archdiocese could use to defend itself.
Attorneys representing the alleged victim have said the man hasn't told his parents about the abuse and doesn't want to. They consulted with a mental health professional who submitted a report that said the forced disclosure could increase the risk that the man would commit suicide, according to court records.
Anderson said the archdiocese's position doesn't make sense. "The archdiocese on the one hand said they want to protect the families of the survivors. At the same time, they want to take the deposition of the family of this survivor. They can't reconcile those two positions."
Anderson said he expects to be able to release documents on priests deemed "credibly accused" by the archdiocese after the files have been reviewed. Documents on priests deemed not credibly accused will be placed under seal, but Anderson could ask the judge to unseal them.
He also said he plans to release portions of the depositions of Nienstedt and McDonough within weeks.
"As soon as we are confident that we have a protocol for protecting the names that get used in the depositions that would not violate either the court order or the identities of the survivors, we'll be prepared to release the public portion of the depositions," he said.
Anderson said after the hearing that he plans to review the documents to look for information that he believes should be made public to protect children from abusers and will ask the judge to unseal those documents. He said he expects to find a significant amount of information on priests not publicly known as abusers.
"Until they are known and revealed to the public, who they are, where they are, what their history is, kids are not safe," he said.
Van de North set a May 30 deadline for both sides to produce all documents for the discovery phase of the case. The trial is scheduled for Sept. 22.
In a statement late Thursday, the archdiocese said it was pleased with the outcome of the hearing granting more time to produce documents and that it would work with all parties "to see that this case moves forward."