Woman sues archdiocese for failing to protect her from abusive priest

St. Joseph, West St. Paul
The woman said she was sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Thurner at St. Joseph Catholic Church in West St. Paul when she was seven to eight years old.
MPR Photo/Meg Martin

A Minnesota woman sued the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis today for allegedly failing to protect her from an abusive priest.

• Full coverage: Archdiocese under scrutiny

The woman said she was sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Thurner at St. Joseph Catholic Church in West St. Paul when she was 7 to 8 years old. She is not named in the complaint, which was brought under a new state law that gives victims more time to sue.

Thurner retired in 1991 and could not be reached for comment. In a 1991 deposition, Thurner said he touched the genitals of two underage teenage boys in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Internal church documents released by attorneys representing the woman show top church leaders knew in 1982 that Thurner had sexually abused a minor.

In a memo dated Nov. 11, 1982, then-Archbishop John Roach said Thurner told him "that he had a brief sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy and had also purchased liquor for that boy."

Roach wrote the memo to the Rev. Robert Carlson and Monsignor Ambrose Hayden. Carlson is now the Archbishop of St. Louis. Hayden and Roach are deceased. The woman who filed suit against the archdiocese and Thurner said she was sexually abused after Roach transferred the offending priest to a new parish.

"They chose to protect their own reputations and protect Father Thurner's reputation, rather than looking out for the well-being of children," attorney Mike Finnegan said at a news conference today.

Finnegan and attorney Jeff Anderson, who are representing the woman, received the documents in 1991 as part of an earlier lawsuit brought by a man who said he was sexually abused by Thurner as a child. Anderson represented a man with a similar claim in 1993. Both cases were settled for an undisclosed amount.

The lawsuit comes as the archdiocese faces a widening clergy sexual abuse scandal prompted by an MPR News investigation that found Archbishop John Nienstedt and other church officials 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.

Archdiocesan spokesman Jim Accurso said he will release a statement about the lawsuit this afternoon.


The lawsuit filed today seeks damages and asks a judge to unseal a list of 33 priests accused of abuse. Lawyers for the archdiocese had provided the names in an earlier Ramsey County civil case, but a judge ordered the names be kept private.

Anderson has asked the archdiocese for years to release the names of offending priests. Several large archdioceses, including those of Philadelphia and Boston, have released the names of abusive priests after scandals exposed by investigative reporters and courts.

Nienstedt has said the priests' names should remain private. In an email to MPR News last week, Nienstedt said some priests "have been falsely accused and exonerated" and those who have abused children are no longer in active ministry.

"It would be wrong to publicize their names as offenders when they have not been proven to be offenders," Nienstedt wrote. "Clergy members should be given the same rights as other citizens."

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has previously said the list includes some clergy who are deceased or whose abuse is already well known through lawsuits and media reports.