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Could criminal charges follow priest abuse revelations?

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Rosebud, South Dakota
Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota
J. Stephen Conn / Creative Commons

Tribal authorities on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota are opening a criminal investigation into alleged sexual abuse of several boys and a teenager by the Rev. Clarence Vavra. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis kept the priest in ministry after he admitted to abuse on the reservation in the 1970s

• The story: Abusive priest hid in plain sight for years, retired quietly to New Prague 

• Full investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran talked to All Things Considered host Tom Crann about the potential legal ramifications of Monday's report.

How are tribal investigators handling this case?

Rosebud reservation
The Rosebud Indian Reservation is located in south-central South Dakota.
Google Maps

They are first trying to locate the men who Vavra may have abused when they were children. Vavra admitted in a May 1995 psychological evaluation that one of his victims was nine or ten years old at the time. That person would likely now be in his late 40s. 

Today, Grace Her Many Horses, the supervisory special agent at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said that she wants to question Vavra and anyone at the archdiocese who knew about the abuse. Vavra is now retired and lives in New Prague, Minn., halfway between the Twin Cities and Mankato. Her Many Horses said it is likely that she will need to ask the FBI for assistance.

This abuse is said to have taken place in the mid-1970s. Is it still possible to file criminal charges against Vavra?

It depends. The situation is complicated, because it involves a reservation. We don't have all the information yet. Since this is considered a major crime, tribal authorities can investigate, but they will ultimately turn the case over to the FBI. 

In the process, a few issues could come up: If a crime took place on the reservation and the victim was an enrolled tribal member, it is too late to file charges. That would constitute a federal case — the statute of limitations on such cases is five years. 

But if a crime took place outside the borders of the reservation, or if any of the victims was not an enrolled member of a recognized tribe, it would become a state case, not a federal one. In that scenario, there could still be time to file charges. A statute of limitations still applies in state cases, but the clock stops when the alleged perpetrator leaves the state. Vavra was only assigned to the South Dakota mission for about one year. It is possible, then, that he could be charged in that scenario, if prosecutors think they have a strong enough case.

What about church officials? MPR News has reported that the archdiocese knew since at least 1995 that Vavra admitted to abusing children. Is it possible that anyone at the archdiocese could be charged?

In Minnesota, people in certain types of jobs are required by law to notify authorities within 24 hours if they know or have reason to believe that a child is being sexually abused. That includes teachers, nurses — and also priests. They, and a handful of others, are all known as "mandated reporters." An exception for priests is that they are not required to report anything that they learn during confession. 

If a mandated reporter does not call authorities about known abuse, that person could be charged with a misdemeanor. However: In Minnesota, a prosecutor has only three years to file charges in those types of cases. So if there was a failure to report child abuse in 1995, 2013 would be well past the statute of limitations. 

What is the victims' group, Minnesota Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, saying about all this? 

SNAP is claiming that church officials might be guilty of obstruction of justice. Obstruction of justice charges are usually reserved for cases in which there is an active investigation going on and someone deliberately tries to damage that investigation. For example: Bribing a witness. Destroying evidence. Legal experts say it's unlikely anyone at the archdiocese will face those kinds of charges. 

Any word from the archdiocese?

Archdiocese leaders have declined to be interviewed. A spokesman said that the archdiocese hasn't heard from any law enforcement officers since MPR News' investigation of the Vavra story aired Monday. Vavra did not answer phone calls made to him today.