Church asks judge to loosen requirements for disclosing priest abuse allegations

Approaching courtroom
Thomas Wieser and Jennifer Larimore, attorneys with the Meier, Kennedy & Quinn law firm, approach a Ramsey County District courtroom Dec. 2, 2013, for a hearing that led to Judge John Van de North's order that the church release the names of priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children. The archdiocese is scheduled to be back in Van de North's courtroom on Friday to request that the judge modify his Dec. 2 order.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Lawyers for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have asked a judge to loosen an order requiring it to disclose the names of all priests accused of child sexual abuse since 2004.

The archdiocese now argues that it doesn't want to release the names of all priests accused of abuse. Rather, it wants time to investigate the allegations first and release the names of the accused priests only if Catholic Church officials determine the claims are credible.

Ramsey County Judge John Van de North ordered the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona to release the names of all recently accused priests by Jan. 6. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday — three days before the Jan. 6 deadline.

In a Dec. 18 letter to Van de North, archdiocese attorney Tom Wieser asked the judge to grant the archdiocese "30 days upon learning of an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor to investigate the claim. If The Archdiocese determines that the claim is not credible, it shall be permitted an opportunity to seek an independent review and determination from the Court regarding The Archdiocese's obligation to publicly disclose the accusation," Wieser wrote.

The Diocese of Winona submitted a similar letter to Van de North, in which attorney Thomas Braun explained, "The Diocese shares concerns that a wholesale public disclosure of incredible, unsubstantiated, frivolous or malicious accusations would do irreparable harm to the reputations of those individuals without good cause."

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

The requests come after Van de North's order earlier this month that required the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona to disclose the names of priests accused of child sexual abuse. Van de North ordered the dioceses to disclose 46 names on previously sealed lists of "credibly accused" priests by Dec. 17. The Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese responded by releasing the names of priests on the sealed lists, as well as the names of two priests accused after the lists were created.

Van de North also ordered the release of the names of all priests accused of sexually abusing children since the lists were created — even if Catholic officials decided the claims weren't credible — by Jan. 6.

The archdiocese, in its letter to Van de North, said that releasing all of the names could damage the reputations of innocent priests.

"An anonymous, one-sentence letter ('Fr. X is a child molester') would have to be publicly disclosed," Wieser, the archdiocese attorney, wrote. "Rumors spread by a mentally unbalanced individual, by a disgruntled parish employee, by conservative parishioners disliking a liberal pastor (or vice versa), or by malicious persons motivated by anti-Catholic animus, would have to be publicly disclosed without regard to credibility."

• Related: List of Twin Cities priests credibly accused of sexual abuse

In response to the archdiocese, victims' attorney Mike Finnegan urged Van de North in a Dec. 20 letter to reject the archdiocese's request to narrow the release. Finnegan noted MPR News' recent coverage of former priest Harry Walsh, whose name wasn't disclosed by the archdiocese despite two allegations of child sexual abuse, and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who was kept in ministry despite violating church policy on overnight trips with children and receiving treatment for sexual addiction. Wehmeyer is now in prison for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.

"Any process that allows the Archdiocese or Diocese alone to be the decision-maker on what allegations are credible and which are not is a dangerous thing," Finnegan wrote.

Finnegan and his colleague Jeff Anderson have argued for years that keeping the names secret puts children at risk. Their efforts won more support this fall after an MPR News investigation found top church officials failed to report allegations of child sexual abuse to police and gave extra monthly payments to abusive priests.

St. Paul police continue to investigate several claims of clergy sexual abuse, including one against Archbishop John Nienstedt. The archbishop stepped aside from public appearances earlier this month after the archdiocese released a statement disclosing a complaint that Nienstedt touched a boy's buttocks during a confirmation group photo in 2009. Nienstedt has denied the allegation.