The top deputy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis resigned that post Thursday amid growing concerns about the church's approach to clergy sex abuse cases.
The Rev. Peter Laird explained his sudden departure as vicar general in a statement posted on the archdiocese's website Thursday afternoon.
"Over the last few years, this Archdiocese has made significant progress in many areas, including how we have strengthened policies and practices regarding clergy misconduct," Laird said in the statement. "I am hopeful my decision to step aside at this time, along with the formation of a new task force can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse."
Archdiocese leaders, staff and priests, he added, "are sincerely committed to proactively addressing these difficult issues."
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Laird was featured in a Sept. 23 MPR News story detailing how the archdiocese knew of the sexual misbehavior of a priest, Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, yet kept him in the ministry.
The story reported Laird received a key 2011 memo on the allegations against Wehmeyer, who later pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys, ages 12 and 14, and possessing child pornography. A judge sentenced the priest to five years in prison.
Following the MPR News story, a group representing people who have been abused by priests called for a criminal investigation of the archdiocese regarding Wehmeyer.
On Thursday, Attorney Jeff Anderson called Laird's resignation an "unprecedented" but insufficient move by the archdiocese in response to allegations of abuse.
"The resignation of Vicar General Laird is only just a gesture. That means they are obviously aware something needed to be done, and somebody needed to fall. And they chose him to be the one," said Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who's filed lawsuits on behalf of thousands of victims of sexual abuse across the country.
Anderson said a grand jury should be convened and evidence should be seized from the archdiocese.
Laird, who was a rising star within the archdiocese, was named vicar general in October 2009 at age 43. Before that, he served as vice rector of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. Besides degrees in theology, he also holds a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, according to his archdiocese biography.
"Father Laird's decision to resign was unexpected and was his decision alone," said Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso. "He did nothing improper. This is an opportunity for a fresh start in leadership."
But Minneapolis priest Mike Tegeder says Laird's resignation won't be enough for Twin Cities Catholics. Tegeder says priests who are afraid to speak out are deeply disappointed that Archbishop John Nienstedt hasn't taken responsibility for how the archdiocese has managed child sexual abuse allegations.
"To have poor Peter Laird take the bullet on this is just pathetic," he said.
In Wednesday's statement, the archdiocese said: "Laird will continue to serve in a variety of roles within the archdiocese, including as the temporary administrator at the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" in Maplewood.
"Father Laird has provided great leadership and excellent vision for this local Church, and I am grateful for his dedication and service to the Archdiocese during his years as Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia," Nienstedt said in the statement.
Laird was unavailable for an interview.
Nienstedt has appointed the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer as the new vicar general. Lachowitzer serves as pastor of the Church of St. John Neumann in Eagan.
"Fr. Lachowitzer's highest priority, as is mine, will be to ensure that the special Task Force I called for last week can operate with full integrity and ensure that no stone is left unturned to prevent harm to anyone due to clergy misconduct. We will announce details about the task force in the coming week."
Laird isn't the first vicar general to step down this year. The second-highest official in the Archdiocese of Newark resigned in May after a former priest violated a court agreement by ministering to youth.