Task force supervisor to control group's access to clergy abuse information

Reginald Whitt
The Rev. Reginald Whitt announced the formation of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force in early October. The new task force will review issues related to clergy sexual misconduct.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A task force created to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will only have access to information provided by a church official.

The task force will not investigate allegations against specific priests, and priest files will not be made public, according to an Oct. 21 letter to clergy by the Rev. Reginald Whitt.

Whitt, chosen by Archbishop John Nienstedt to create the task force, will control the panel's access to information about clergy abuse. "Access to these files will be within my control, and limited only to what is necessary for the Task Force to be able to make an informed decision with respect to their policy review," he wrote.

• Full coverage: Church under scrutiny

Whitt's letter appears to contradict Nienstedt's characterization of the task force as independent. It also raises the question of how the task force will be able to make fully informed decisions without access to all information.

In an email to MPR News last week, Nienstedt wrote, "The Task Force will have unprecedented authority to examine any and all issues associated with clergy sexual abuse. Its findings and recommendations will be welcomed and implemented."

The archdiocese responded late Monday afternoon with a statement promising the task force "will provide a truly independent analysis from a group of outside and impartial experts to help tell how we can do better."

The archdiocese has been under scrutiny since September, following investigative reports by MPR News that found Nienstedt and other church leaders failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual misconduct, did not turn over possible child pornography to police for nine years, and gave special payments to offending priests, including pedophiles.

Nienstedt created the task force in response to the investigation and growing concerns by parishioners. He said it was important that an assessment of the archdiocese's handling of clergy abuse issues be done by "an independent group so that there can be no question of the integrity of the review." The panel, he added, would have "full authority and all the resources needed to complete their work."

Victims of clergy abuse have called for a grand jury investigation of the archdiocese's handling of abuse claims, arguing that recent reports show the church cannot be trusted to review its own cases. Earlier this month, St. Paul police asked anyone who has been sexually abused by a priest to contact law enforcement. Police continue to investigate the archdiocese's role in a child pornography case.

In his letter to clergy, Whitt said he plans to draft a "confidentiality agreement requesting that each [task force] member acknowledge that they are prohibited from divulging or making any use, in any venue, or for any purpose, of any information relating to individual priests they obtain during the course of their work as members of the task force."

Whitt attempted to alleviate concerns among some priests that their personnel files will become public. "I understand that many of you may be anxious about your right to privacy and a good reputation," he wrote.

The letter details a complicated process involving three separate committees, none of which will have access to all information or be able to enact any new policies without Nienstedt's approval.

It is unclear whether the mission of these three committees is any different from church policies already in place.

The archdiocese has had a written policy for handling clergy sexual abuse since at least 1986, and the Vatican has its own detailed process for handling complaints. Nienstedt said last week that some church officials may not have followed its policies.

The two new committees detailed by Whitt are called the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force and the Ministerial Standards Board. Whitt's letter also references a revised Clergy Review Board, but it is unclear how the board has been revised. The Clergy Review Board already is supposed to serve as an advisor to the archbishop on sexual misconduct.

The archdiocese this afternoon said the Clergy Review Board will now focus only on clergy sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults rather than "the full spectrum of clergy misconduct" and that the Ministerial Standards Board will deal with all other issues.

The committees are separate from Nienstedt's announcement last week that he will hire an outside firm to "review all clergy files."

It is unclear why the archdiocese has created four separate entities.

Whitt said he will publish the findings and recommendations of the task force and will implement the recommendations. A spokesperson for the archdiocese previously said there is no timeline for when the report will be completed, and the archdiocese has not decided which firm to hire.

Editor's Note: This story was updated Oct. 28, 2013, at 5 p.m. to include a response from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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