New church task force on clergy abuse begins its work

Reginald Whitt
The Rev. Reginald Whitt, newly appointed Vicar for Ministerial Standards for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, announces the formation of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force. The new task force will review issues related to clergy sexual misconduct.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A task force created by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to investigate clergy misconduct includes a psychologist who works on sex offender management, a computer forensics expert and a former St. Paul police sergeant. Members say their work will be independent of the archdiocese they're investigating.

An MPR News investigation has revealed that several priests suspected of sexual misconduct were protected by the Twin Cities archdiocese.

• Full coverage: Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

In a letter dated Sept. 27, Archbishop John Nienstedt expressed sorrow for victims of abuse and said he bore "special responsibility for priests" in the archdiocese. Last weekend, the archdiocese asked parish priests to tell churchgoers about a new task force that has been formed to investigate the allegations.

That task force took its first step Wednesday.

The Rev. Reginald Whitt is a Dominican priest and professor at St. Thomas University. He has degrees in civil and canon law. Whitt does not serve on the task force — but he did choose its members from among a group of people — not clergy, and some not even Catholic — who volunteered.

Church officials said they will give the task force any document its members request. And, Whitt added, no one will be required to talk to its members.

"But I should think that everyone is concerned with achieving the goals set forth for this task force," he said, "so that we can establish best practices and actually adopt them; implement best practices in this archdiocese so that some years from now we don't have MPR every Monday announcing some new hideous transgression on the part of some priest or the archdiocese."

Whitt acknowledged those best practices were supposed to already be in place.

"We have had policies and procedures in place since Archbishop Roach, back in the '80s, and yet news reports suggest someone was not paying attention to them," he said.

Whitt said if the task force asks to interview Nienstedt, the archbishop will likely agree.

"His own credibility and integrity are invested in the very act of appointing me and asking me to establish the task force," he said.

The group will issue a report that Whitt will edit and review to make sure the recommendations are in line with canon law.

Former U.S. magistrate Brian Short is a member of the task force. He said he doesn't think the group will recommend disciplinary action. If their investigation finds illegal activity, he said, they'll report it to Whitt. If the task force isn't allowed to operate independently, he said, he'll quit.

"I don't expect that will happen," he added. "I have been assured by what Father Whitt has written that it will be fully independent and that the task force will issue a report that anybody can pick over and it will then be implemented. No doubt in my mind."

But David Clohessy is skeptical. He's a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Clohessy says if recent history is any indication, the task force will likely issue a report that protects the archdiocese rather than criticizes it.

"I'm sure these are good, sincere people and they mean well," he said. "But we desperately hope they'll do their homework because if they look around the country they'll see that others who've been put in these positions and accepted these roles have ended up becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution."

The task force doesn't have a deadline to produce its report. The chair is Kathleen DiGiorno, a compliance specialist and attorney for Medtronic who lives in St. Paul and is a parishioner at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Roseville. The task force also includes Brook Schaub, a former St. Paul Police sergeant.