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Twin Cities, Winona church leaders seek delay in naming more accused Catholic priests

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Diocese of Winona
The Diocese of Winona office in Winona, Minn.
Andrew Link/The Winona Daily News via AP

Lawyers for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona want more time to challenge a judge's order to release the names of priests recently accused of child sexual abuse.

The lawyers have asked Ramsey County Judge John Van de North to suspend the Feb. 5 deadline for the disclosure of the names of priests accused since 2004. In separate court filings, they argued that the judge's order went too far and could harm the reputations of falsely accused priests.

"With all due respect to the Court, it is the Archdiocese position that this Court has exceeded its jurisdiction and authority in ordering the Archdiocese to make certain disclosures of all priests accused of child abuse regardless of when and under what circumstances those accusations were made," wrote archdiocese lawyer Daniel Haws.

Van de North ordered the release of the names of "credibly accused" priests on a 2004 list and the names of all priests accused of child sexual abuse since then at a hearing on Dec. 2. For the more recent names, Van de North ordered they be released regardless of whether Catholic officials deemed the allegations credible.  

He made the decision as part of a lawsuit filed by an alleged victim of the Rev. Thomas Adamson against the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona. Adamson served in both dioceses and has admitted to sexually abusing several boys.

It came after an MPR News investigation found the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis did not report alleged sex crimes to police and gave special payments to accused priests. The revelations led to the resignation of the archbishop's top deputy, public protests, and the postponement of a $160 million capital campaign.

 St. Paul police also launched a broad investigation into clergy sex crimes.

Attorneys for the Diocese of Winona said they were blindsided by the judge's order, particularly because they weren't the focus of the MPR News investigation.

"It appears as though the Diocese has been caught up in the media frenzy involving the Archdiocese," attorney Thomas Braun wrote Friday. "The Diocese is a separate defendant and respectfully submits that generalizations relating to Fr. Wehmeyer, Fr. Vavra and Fr. Shelley that the Court has previously made have been unfairly applied to the Diocese."

Haws, the archdiocese lawyer, said victims' attorneys are using the broad ruling to seek depositions and documents over the objections of church leaders. Attorney Jeff Anderson told MPR News that he's already scheduled the depositions of Archbishop John Nienstedt and former vicar general Kevin McDonough for late January. 

Church lawyers from the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese offered a new proposal Friday for handling recent allegations:

First, the allegation would be reported to police. If the priest is criminally charged, the church would be required to disclose the allegation within 15 days. If no criminal charges were filed, church officials would conduct their own investigation to decide whether they believe the allegation should be disclosed. If they determined that they wanted to keep the information private, they would submit the request to an "independent third party" for review. That third party would decide whether the information should be released. Church lawyers said the process would protect the reputations of innocent priests and the legal rights of the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese.

Attorneys representing the alleged victim will be submitting a separate proposal for how to handle recent allegations later this month.

The argument arose because the Adamson victim argued that the archdiocese and the Winona diocese were creating a public nuisance by keeping the information on abusive priests secret.