Church leaders qualify promise to name priests who sexually abused children

Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Chancery
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Chancery Offices across the street from the Cathedral.
Amanda Snyder / MPR

Archbishop John Nienstedt has backed away from a promise to release the names of some priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who have sexually abused children.

Nienstedt initially told MPR News on Friday that, in a reversal of a decades-old policy, he would release some of the names this month — and that more could be made public after a private firm hired by the archdiocese reviews all clergy files.

"For the sake of the dignity of each human person and for the sake of our souls, we must fix this problem of sexual misconduct right now," he said. "For the sake of the God we love and serve and for all who are counting on Catholic leadership to live by our beliefs and our word, I will not allow it to stand."

But less than 36 hours after Nienstedt read those remarks, church officials started putting caveats on them. Nienstedt then revised his statement and sent a separate, private letter to clergy saying he believes he cannot release the names without the "permission of the relevant court."

Abusive priest hid in plain sight for years

Nienstedt's decision comes in response to an MPR News investigation that found the archdiocese kept the Rev. Clarence Vavra in ministry, despite his admission that he had sexually abused several boys and a teenager while on assignment at the Rosebud Sioux tribe's reservation in South Dakota.

In his latest, revised communication, Nienstedt appears to be referring to an earlier list of 33 accused priests that the archdiocese provided to a Ramsey County court as part of a 2009 lawsuit. A judge placed that list under a protective order, which allowed victims' attorneys to receive it, but prohibited them from divulging its contents.

It's unclear why Nienstedt believes he would need a judge to unseal the list of 33 priests before he could release his own list, and how many priests will be on the list the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis plans to release.

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson has been asking a judge to unseal the list for years. Anderson, who is suing the archdiocese on behalf of several victims, told MPR News that the archdiocese does not need permission from the court to release a list of names. He also said some offenders have died, and some may have moved out of the Twin Cities metro area that the archdiocese represents.

In his statement, Nienstedt said the archdiocese would limit its release of names to living priests who still reside within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and who church officials have determined are guilty of sexual abuse against minors.

"When you consider all three limitations that he is making, we are talking effectively about a half-truth and not a full truth," Anderson said. "And that ... gives us no comfort that the real offenders and the full scope of who they are and where they are is yet to be known — and not going to be part of this release."

For years — and as recently as last month — attorneys for the archdiocese have aggressively fought efforts to unseal the list of 33, and they've convinced judges that it doesn't make sense to delve into old cases and reverse earlier decisions. Nienstedt and others have argued that releasing the list would be unfair to priests who have been falsely accused.

"It would be wrong to publicize their names as offenders, when they have not been proven to be offenders," the archbishop said in a statement last month. "Clergy members should be given the same rights as other citizens."

If a judge does not unseal the list — as was the case last month in a Ramsey County courtroom — the archdiocese would not release the names on it, Nienstedt said.

Attorneys for the archdiocese did not respond to a request for clarification.

The ambiguity has left some victims wondering why the church must put any restrictions on the names that they release as a result of this weekend's announcement.

"If you truly want to come clean, if you truly want to be upstanding," said Al Michaud of Eden Prairie, "if you truly want to be a Christian, open your files and let the truth out."

Michaud reached a settlement with the archdiocese in the 1990s for abuse he endured at the hands of a priest in the late 1970s. He said he thinks Nienstedt should allow law enforcement to review the files to see if there has been any criminal wrongdoing.

"I don't understand why he gets to call the shots," he said. "If there are known perpetrators, be they alive or dead, why isn't the truth being released? I can't understand that. Who gave him the power to decide what names of sexual predators get released and what don't?"

Archdiocese officials said recently that they will hire an outside firm to review all of its clergy files, and have appointed a task force of lay people to investigate clergy misconduct. Nienstedt said he plans to announce this week what firm will review the files, and said additional priests could be named as a result of that review. It's unclear how church leaders will handle cases that they deem to be unsubstantiated.

Bob Schiwderski, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Nienstedt's action doesn't go far enough. He said the archbishop should visit every parish where offending priests were assigned and announce that they were known to have abused children. It would give victims greater courage to come forward, he said, about abuse they suffered as children.

"If they're going to release the names, then they should also go to where they dropped them on the families and unsuspecting children," Schiwderski said.

Several archdioceses, including those in Philadelphia and Boston, have released detailed lists of priests accused of abusing children in response to earlier scandals.

Terence McKiernan, founder of the watchdog site, has said the lists often contain few surprises, since so many names have already been made public.

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