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Judge orders names of 46 accused priests to be released

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Approaching courtroom
Thomas Wieser and Jennifer Larimore, attorneys with the law firm Meier, Kennedy & Quinn, approach a Ramsey County District courtroom where they represented the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

A Ramsey County judge ordered today that the names of 46 Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse -- 33 from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and 13 from the Diocese of Winona -- be made public.

Attorneys for victims of clergy sexual abuse have sought the release of the names since a Ramsey County judge sealed them in a 2009 lawsuit. They've argued that the public is at risk as long as the names remain secret.  

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

Archdiocesan officials have fought in the past to keep the list secret, but changed their position in response to an MPR News investigation that found that church leaders protected a priest who admitted to sexually abusing boys on an American Indian reservation and did not disclose his abuse to the police or the public. Archbishop John Nienstedt announced on Nov. 11 that he would begin releasing the names of priests with substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse against them in November if he obtained a judge's permission. 

Ramsey County District Court Judge John Van de North said at today's hearing that the names must be released no later than Dec. 17.

In a statement, the archdiocese said it is "grateful for the approval of Ramsey County court to release information relating to priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors in our archdiocese." The statement also said the church anticipates "releasing this information" Thursday on its website and in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit. 

The archdiocese's statement said "the information to be released is mostly related to reported incidents that occurred between the mid 1950's and 1980's. Most of the men whose names will be released have been previously identified in media reports. All of these men who will be identified have been permanently removed from ministry or are deceased." 

Nine of the 33 priests on the Twin Cities list are dead, archdiocese lawyer Tom Wieser said, and seven are not from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt vowed three weeks ago to release the names of all priests living in the archdiocese whom the archdiocese believes sexually abused children.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Van de North also ordered the archdiocese to release by Jan. 6 the names of priests who have sexually abused children since 2004. Wieser said there's only one priest who meets that criteria, and that priest is already well known - an apparent reference to the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who was sentenced earlier this year to five years in prison for sexually abusing children and possessing child pornography.  

Victims' attorney Jeff Anderson said he's grateful for the judge's order. "What the survivors want most, and what we want most, is the kids to be protected and not to have happen what happened to them in the future," he said. "Today we made a stride in that direction."

Van de North was not expected to decide the matter today, partly because he had recently rejected a similar request from Anderson this year to unseal the list. 

Van de North issued his verbal order today after Wieser, the archdiocese lawyer, announced in court that Archbishop Nienstedt wants to release 29 of the 33 names, as well as those 29 priests' year of birth, current age or year of death, ordination year, parish assignment histories, current ministerial status and city of residence.

However, Wieser said Nienstedt is opposed to releasing the remaining four names. In three of those cases, the archdiocese could not substantiate allegations against the priests, Wieser said. In the fourth case, church reviewers found no evidence that the priest had served in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he said. 

Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson and his associates approach a Ramsey County District courtroom in St. Paul Monday.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Wieser also announced that Nienstedt has asked former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson to review the files of the three priests. If Johnson finds "reasonable grounds that abuse occurred," Nienstedt wouldn't object to releasing those names as well, he said.

Van de North left open the possibility that the four remaining names could be withheld if the archdiocese provides a convincing explanation. He said that attorneys for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona can submit explanations to the court if they believe some or all of the names should not be disclosed.

The Diocese of Winona continues to oppose the release of its list of names, according to a diocesan attorney.

THE LIST

Attorneys for victims of clergy sexual abuse have asked the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for years to release the names of credibly accused priests. The archdiocese has refused, saying most of those priests are either dead, already known to the public, or falsely accused.

The battle over the list began in 2004, when the archdiocese told researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that it knew of 33 priests accused of sexually abusing children. The archdiocese did not provide the names of the priests. Researchers used the information from the archdiocese and other dioceses around the country to study the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse.

In 2009, victims' attorneys Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan asked a judge to order that the names of the 33 priests be released. Ramsey County Judge Gregg Johnson ordered the archdiocese to provide the information to the attorneys as part of a specific lawsuit but immediately placed the list under seal. It has remained under seal since then, which means it could not be released to the public -- and victims' attorneys cannot reveal its contents -- without a judge's order to unseal it.