Lawsuit alleges church officials knew priest abused children as early as 1969; kept him in ministry

Fr. Jermone Kern in 1966
A photo of Fr. Jerome C. Kern appeared in The Catholic Bulletin on Nov. 11, 1966 above a story of his ordination in Rome.
The Catholic Bulletin

A lawsuit filed today alleges that top officials in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis allowed a priest to continue working with children despite previous reports that he sexually abused kids.

The Rev. Jerome Kern is the latest Catholic priest to be implicated in the growing scandal of clergy sex abuse in the Twin Cities.

• Full coverage: Archdiocese under scrutiny

The lawsuit filed Thursday morning by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson on behalf of a man in his 50s alleges Kern abused him starting when he was 12 years old while Kern was working at Our Lady of Grace in Edina during the 1970s. The man, identified only as Plaintiff Doe 26, said the archdiocese knew -- or should have known -- that Kern was a child molester before it placed him there.

Over three decades, Kern remained in the ministry, even though two families reported to the archbishop and the St. Paul police that Kern abused their sons as early as 1969, just three years after Kern was ordained.

One of those boys Kerns was accused of abusing that year was Jamie Heutmaker, who also spoke out today.

Heutmaker said he and his friend Charlie Turning and some other children went to Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, where Kern touched their genitals while playing with them in the water. Church memos obtained by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson show that archdiocese officials were skeptical of Kern's claims that he was simply engaging in what he called "Italian wrestling" -- in which he said men grasp at each other's genitals.

But instead of barring him from the ministry, archdiocese officials moved him to another parish.

Heutmaker, 58, now works as a software engineer. He is not the plaintiff who filed today's lawsuit, but came forward today to tell reporters that the church's pattern of concealment must stop.

"I've been hearing and seeing this happened for 45 years since it occurred, and I've seen nothing changed," he said. "I'm hoping that we can stop this and save some children from going through what we all did."

Kern eventually wrote an apology to Heutmaker, Charlie Turning and their mothers nearly 20 years after the abuse happened.

By that time, Kern is alleged to have had a similar encounter with Al Michaud, who in 1977 was a 15-year-old Boy Scout visiting the St. Paul Seminary.

Michaud said today that Kern, a group leader for the trip, touched his genitals in the pool for about 45 minutes.

In the early 90s, Michaud came forward and reported the abuse to then-Vicar General Kevin McDonough at the archdiocese. Michaud said he wasn't prepared for McDonough's reaction.

"He had a file in front of him, opened it up, and Kevin McDonough started crying - sobbing," Michaud recalled. "I was taken aback. He opened up the file and said, 'This is gonna piss you off -- again.'"

Michaud said McDonough read from the file and mentioned Jamie Heutmaker, Charlie Turning, and other victims who reported abuse by Kern.

Michaud thought he had found an ally in the empathetic McDonough, who resigned earlier this year. But when Michaud called to follow up two weeks later, he said McDonough sounded aloof and told Michaud he'd have to go through other channels to resolve the situation.

Michaud filed suit against the archdiocese and Kern. The parties eventually settled, but only after Michaud had to endure painful remarks by Kern in a deposition.

"He turned it around and accused me of coming onto him," Michaud said. "I was the one who initiated sexual advances against him. That was his deposition."

As a part of a settlement to that suit, church officials promised Kern would never be allowed again in the ministry around children, Michaud said.

But they broke that promise by assigning Kern to his fourth parish -- St. Peter in Forest Lake -- in 1996.

Michaud, now a stay-at-home dad, considers that a betrayal.

"I don't want anybody else abused because people aren't doing their jobs, because people of supposed faith are doing the wrong thing," he said, choking back tears. "Charlie and Jamie were abused in 1969, and they came forward with evidence to the archdiocese, to the police. But I was abused in 1977. Why? Because they did nothing. Because they covered it up and shuffled him around."

Kern, now 72, did not return calls for comment. Besides Our Lady of Grace, he also worked at St. Mark in St. Paul, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Minnetonka and St. Peter in Forest Lake. He was removed from active ministry in 2002 by taking a medical retirement. A spokesman for the archdiocese said Kern "exercised no public ministry at that point." The archdiocese said in a statement Thursday that he has complied with a church-run monitoring program for problem priests and that it will investigate the claims made today.

"We are completely committed to ensuring the safety of children and young people who have been entrusted to our care," the archdiocese's statement said. "We are deeply sorry for any harm that has come from clergy misconduct. Eliminating any form of abuse is the highest priority for the Archdiocese."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quoted an inaccurate statement made at today's press conference regarding the number of parishes where the Rev. Jerome Kern is alleged to have abused children. According to the lawsuit, Kern's abuse happened at three parishes. The story has been updated.

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News