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County attorney: Grand jury not a likely option in archdiocese investigation

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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi says he is reluctant to call a grand jury in the archdiocese case.
Alex Kolyer for MPR/File 2012

Anger over revelations about how the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis handled allegations of clergy sexual abuse seems to have yielded to a new resolve among victims, their advocates and members of the community: Lock them up. 

The most outraged — many Catholics — want to see charges filed, not only against accused pedophile priests but against top church officials who kept the abuse secret over the years, putting children at risk. 

Advocates for victims are calling for police search warrants and a grand jury investigation that could reveal potentially incriminating documents from the archdiocese.

But so far, there are no clear signs that St. Paul police and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi will use that approach.

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

Choi's reluctance to use his grand-jury subpoena powers has drawn criticism from former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who more than a decade ago mounted one of the most aggressive investigations into clergy sexual abuse. The work of Abraham and her successor culminated last year in the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, the first senior Roman Catholic official in the nation convicted for concealing clergy sexual abuse.

Abraham is convinced that all over the country, authorities are afraid to take on officials within the powerful Catholic Church.

"In cities like yours, there are notable instances of known longstanding sex abuse, which prosecutors won't touch with a 10-foot pole because they don't have the guts to do it," she said.

 Graphic: Explore the roles of agencies across the state in the clergy sexual abuse investigation

In Choi's first extensive interview about the case since MPR News began a series of reports in September, the first-term county attorney said he would seek justice in the archdiocese case "without fear or favor." He said he understands the public's frustration and the second-guessing, and he's asking for patience.

"Every time they hear of a new situation — a new report that comes out and talks about things that have happened to children in the context of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — the public wants something to be done," said Choi, who has aggressively prosecuted sex traffickers of minors. 

"They don't necessarily see things that are happening," he said. "The public shouldn't assume that nothing is happening."

In October, St. Paul police said they were reopening an investigation into allegations that the Rev. Jonathan Shelley possessed child pornography on his computer. Officers are in their third month of investigating the archdiocese and priests.

• Related story: St. Paul police will reopen child pornography investigation of priest

Choi said the investigation is limiting what he and other authorities can say about the case. The 43-year-old Choi, who grew up Catholic but is no longer practicing, said he would hold anyone in the church accountable if "we believe we can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Yet he is reluctant to call a grand jury during the investigation — a strategy his peers in Minnesota agree with. 

But Abraham said the clergy abuse crisis in the Twin Cities should prompt Choi to act now.

"I think he's wrong, and he ought to ... get a grand jury," said Abraham. "He ought to say, 'Where there's smoke, there might be fire, and it's my duty to the people who voted me into office to see how deep and far this goes.' He has to be brave about it and not worry about his political career. If I can do it, so can he."

Earlier this month, the Twin Cities archdiocese disclosed the names of 30 priests it deemed "credibly accused" of sexually abusing children over more than 60 years. 

• Related story: The list: Archdiocese names priests credibly accused of sexual abuse

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt talked to reporters outside Our Lady of Grace church in Edina Sunday. Nienstedt delivered a contrite homily during Sunday Masses at the church, telling parishioners that they justifiably feel indignation -- and that they deserve better.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP

The archdiocese had hidden the names of some of the abusive priests for decades. Only three have ever been criminally charged. And critics say the list is far from complete.

The archdiocese published the list after MPR News reported that Twin Cities archbishops had kept a priest in ministry despite his admission that he abused boys on an American Indian reservation. 

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

The MPR News investigation also has shown that the archdiocese failed to warn parishioners of one priest's pattern of sexual addiction, privately debated whether another priest's computer contained child pornography, and gave abusive priests payments beyond their pensions.

"This is not a red flag," Abraham said of the findings from the news reports. "This is a monumental mountain of evidence, which a prosecutor should take and run with by impaneling a grand jury."

Former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham
Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham impaneled a grand jury in 2002 to investigate the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's handling of clergy sexual abuse. The grand jury issued a scathing report, hundreds of pages long, in 2005.
AP photo/File 2005

Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt has said he did not break any laws, and he has no reason to believe his staff has broken any, either.

In Philadelphia, the key to ferreting out the truth was to get church officials to admit in their own words what they knew and when they knew it, Abraham said. After impaneling the first grand jury in 2002, she used her subpoena powers to force the archdiocese to turn over a trove of internal documents that was locked away from the public. 

Short of that, Abraham said, archdiocesan officials will not voluntarily release information that law-enforcement authorities seek. "They are going to be driving the train — not the prosecutor or the police," she said. 

By reviewing the Philadelphia archdiocese's files, the grand jury found that officials kept records on 169 priests who were accused of sexually abusing minors. In a 2005 report, the jurors said they were able to substantiate cases involving 63 of those priests. 

Those figures were much higher than the 35 priests the Philadelphia archdiocese initially disclosed.

Abraham said she suspects the number of accused abusers within the Twin Cities archdiocese is a lot higher than the church's count of 30. 

NEW ERA OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The scandal in the Twin Cities Archdiocese is unfolding in a relatively new era of clergy sex crimes. Recent cases in Philadelphia and Kansas City have shown that high-ranking church officials can be charged with covering up or failing to report the abuse. 

Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

And that's what St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents many of the victims, is hoping will happen in Minnesota.

"Until the top officials who are making these decisions are held accountable, and one or all of them hear the jail door clang behind them, the systemic concealment of crimes by clerics who can't control their sexual impulses will continue," he said.

In Kansas City last year, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to notify police of suspected child abuse, a misdemeanor charge, by a priest who took pornographic pictures of young girls. Finn remains bishop today.

And earlier this year, the Los Angeles archbishop relieved Cardinal Roger Mahony of his public duties after newly released documents showed Mahony hid instances of clergy sexual abuse from law enforcement. Mahony and his top aides have not been charged.

Before Abraham impaneled what would be the first of three Philadelphia grand juries investigating clergy sexual abuse in 2002, she said, she began clipping newspaper articles showing the national scope of the problem.

Her desire to investigate began with a simple question.

"Is it possible that Philadelphia — which had a very significant population of Roman Catholics — could they have been spared the pain of child sex abuse?" she said. "Is it just going around every place but we're immune, or not? It just started with curiosity."

The Philadelphia area, home to about 4 million people, has about 240 parishes within its archdiocese. By comparison, the greater Twin Cities population is about 3.1 million, and its archdiocese comprises 188 parishes. 

DIFFERING PHILOSOPHIES

Choi, the Ramsey County attorney, said he fundamentally disagrees with Abraham's philosophy.

"Here in Minnesota, we should not be calling an investigative grand jury because I just happened to wake up one morning, I read the paper, and I'm very troubled about what I read in the paper," he said.

Choi, who was elected in 2010, is generally seen as a careful and methodical prosecutor who rose from humble beginnings. 

When he was 3, Choi and his parents left South Korea for St. Paul, where they made their first home in a low-income housing tower. He went on to graduate from Marquette University and Hamline University Law School, and entered private practice before becoming St. Paul's city attorney in 2006. He was elected Ramsey County attorney in 2010. Many women's advocates credit him for his work on domestic-abuse cases.

Last year, Choi earned $146,497, according to public salary data.

In the archdiocese case, Choi has made two of his top criminal attorneys available to guide police investigators on legal questions.

In Minnesota, the secret grand jury proceedings typically are not used to investigate allegations, but rather to decide whether to indict someone after a police investigation has concluded. 

Several current and former Minnesota prosecutors interviewed for this story agree with Choi's decision to defer to the police investigation at this time. 

Many say Minnesota county attorney's offices simply aren't staffed to handle large investigations. Out of a staff of about 325, Choi only has six full-time investigators. They specialize in public-assistance fraud.

Choi said that convening a grand jury to investigate sexual abuse would be unprecedented. "The reality is that it's never really happened here in the state of Minnesota," he said. "It's a huge, huge decision. And we have to be mindful and careful about how we exercise that power."

THE PHILADELPHIA GRAND JURIES 

A grand jury investigation into clergy sexual abuse in the Philadelphia archdiocese revealed that church leaders concealed abuse by 60-plus priests among their ranks for nearly 40 years. At the time, prosecutors were unable to bring charges because of Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, which was later changed.

The grand jury, convened in 2002 by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham after the archdiocese acknowledged that it was aware of 30 abusive priests, released a withering 424-page report on its findings.

"The evidence is clear. This reaches the top -- the very top of our archdiocese," Abraham said at a news conference, according to an Associated Press report. "Regrettably, the perpetrators of these crimes and the people that protected them will never face the penalties they deserve."

A second grand jury, impaneled in 2011, said at least 37 priests who had "substantial evidence of abuse" against them were still serving in positions that would permit contact with children, and accused Monsignor William Lynn of endangering the welfare of children by allowing those priests to remain in such roles. In June 2012, Lynn became the first senior Catholic official in the country to be convicted for covering up clergy sexual abuse

But Abraham said Choi, whom she has never met, should use all of the tools available to him. 

"This is not Columbus discovering America," she said. "He's not saying he doesn't have the power and authority. All he's saying is, 'We don't usually do this.' Break the mold and do something bold."

Yet even in Philadelphia, investigating the archdiocese was a frustrating process for the grand jury. In a 418-page report issued in 2005, the jury criticized the church hierarchy for what it called a "concerted campaign of cover-up" that was just as immoral as the abuse. 

That report led to no new charges because the statute of limitations prevented top officials from being held criminally accountable. 

Still, Abraham said she believed the victims received a measure of vindication through the grand jury's blistering report. It published several dozen names of abusive priests and the men who concealed their crimes.

"It's not about prosecution," she said. "It's about doing justice."

The report spurred legislative changes in Pennsylvania and prompted additional victims to come forward, she said. Nine years after the first grand jury was convened, new criminal charges were filed against three abusive priests, a teacher, and Monsignor Lynn, the church administrator who covered up the abuse. Lynn was sentenced to three to six years in prison.

State grand juries in Minnesota aren't allowed to issue reports, as those in Pennsylvania can. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said a Minnesota grand jury can only issue an indictment, or what's known as a "no bill," in which the jury finds there isn't enough probable cause to believe a person committed a crime.

"It's kind of a myth that the grand jury has all these mystical powers, and can send out these tentacles and do all of these significant things," Freeman said. "That's just not how a state grand jury is done in Minnesota today."

Freeman says the only advantage a grand jury would have over a regular police investigation is its authority to subpoena a witness who refuses to talk.

Unlike Lynne Abraham in Philadelphia, John Choi hasn't publicly urged police to seize the secret files at the chancery in St. Paul. He recently recused himself from one abuse case because he went to high school at St. Thomas Academy with the accused priest. 

But over the past couple of years, his office has sought successful prosecutions against two other priests accused of abuse. 

Choi, who has been praised for aggressively pursuing cases against sex traffickers and showing empathy for their young victims, said he has encouraged police to make the archdiocese case — and child sex abuse cases in general — a priority.

AN INVESTIGATION CONTINUES

The police have yet to search the chancery.

"If the investigation takes us in that direction, we'll go in that direction," said police spokesman Howie Padilla. "We need probable cause and evidence that a crime has been committed. Right now we don't necessarily have confirmation of those things."

At a time when the news is filled with stories of children abused by priests, Chief Tom Smith has made clear that at least in the context of sex trafficking, he will not tolerate the exploitation of children.

"For those people who want to perpetrate this terrible type of crime, I've got a message for you: Not in our town," Smith said at a recent groundbreaking for a shelter to house young trafficking victims.

Commander Nash
St. Paul Police Cmdr. Mary Nash asked victims of clergy sexual abuse to come forward in an October news conference.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Smith has declined multiple requests for interviews about the archdiocese, but said he would talk when the time is right.

"We're not going to be doing the investigation in a public venue," said Padilla. 

Meanwhile, officers continue to call for victims, looking for leads. 

Cmdr. Mary Nash held a press conference in October to ask for survivors of priest sexual abuse to come forward. But Nash says that call for victims yielded a "trickle" of responses, rather than a rush. 

"They have to work through a lot of things internally," she said, referring to victims of abuse. "Maybe they have disclosed that abuse to somebody close to them.  Maybe they haven't. They have to work through, 'OK, I've never told anybody about this, but I feel compelled to make that police report.'"

Police say several victims have told police their stories since Nash's press conference. And the archdiocese's recent disclosure of the 30 accused priests has prompted additional victims to come forward, Padilla said.  

Anderson, the victims' attorney, said although the accounts of survivors are important to an investigation, they are just one piece.

"That alone doesn't advance a full criminal investigation of those most responsible for the crimes," Anderson said. "A survivor reporting that he or she had been abused can help prosecute an investigative offender, but it doesn't really shed a great deal of light on the ongoing criminal activity of top officials."

He's hoping authorities will seize the church's secret files and then subpoena archdiocesan officials to testify under oath. Anderson is advocating for a combination of a multijurisdictional law enforcement task force, search warrants and a grand jury that would be able to call witnesses.

"I am both confident and hopeful that [law enforcement officials] are being vigorous and rigorous, and doing things in a way they've never done before," Anderson said.

For the first time, law enforcement officials in the Twin Cities are being presented with a body of evidence that Anderson claims shows a pattern of abuse and concealment. Some of the information also has come to light through a flurry of lawsuits this year, after the Legislature lifted the civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse cases.

And the claims by a former top church official who was in charge of the chancery's records and compliance with church law add to the fodder. Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned earlier this year, told MPR News that most efforts by the archdiocese to examine allegations of any kind were not sincere.

Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

"Any time we investigated, it was pretty much to ensure that nobody ever found out what was really going on," Haselberger said. "Our investigations almost served the opposite purpose of investigating. It wasn't to get to the truth."

If a criminal case is presented to the Ramsey County attorney's office, prosecutors will need to wrestle with Minnesota's statutes of limitations. For example, priests — like nurses and teachers — are required to report any suspected child sexual abuse. But a prosecutor generally has only three years to file those charges, and at least one case that has recently come to light goes back much further. 

Victims' advocates say prosecutors should consider more serious charges.

David Clohessy, executive director of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it's easy to simply prosecute the men who commit the sex crimes. 

It's much trickier to investigate the men who concealed the crimes, he said.

"I've talked to prosecutors who've said, 'Gosh, wouldn't it be worse if we did a big investigation, and it turned out we weren't able to charge anybody? Wouldn't that be even more hurtful and disillusioning to victims?'" Clohessy said. "I say, 'Absolutely not.' It's better to try and fail than not try at all."



CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE INVESTIGATION: WHAT ROLES DO AGENCIES AROUND THE STATE PLAY?

Learn more about the level of involvement local police departments, county attorneys and the state attorney general's office have had in this investigation.

Editor's note: Molly Bloom and Meg Martin contributed to this report