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Document shows church leaders knew of abuse, but waited to report

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Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt blesses a crowd gathered to discuss immigration reform in September 2013.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Archbishop John Nienstedt did not immediately report to police allegations that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer sexually abused a child, according to a document obtained Wednesday by MPR News that the archbishop signed in 2012.

Curtis Carl Wehmeyer
Minnesota Department of Corrections

The document — a formal decree signed by Nienstedt to comply with church law — says the archdiocese knew of the allegations on June 18. Yet police reports show the archdiocese didn't report the claims to police until two days later. 

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

The revelation came hours after Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in a news conference that he was declining to file any charges for failure to report Wehmeyer's abuse to police, and after St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith said that officers lacked probable cause for a subpoena or search warrant that would force the archdiocese to turn over all of its files. The law requires a priest to report suspected child abuse within 24 hours unless he learned the information as part of confession. 

John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said at a news conference Wednesday that authorities would file no further charges in the Wehmeyer case. A police investigation into whether officials of the Twin Cities archdiocese failed to report suspicions of abuse in a timely way, he said, found no evidence that might persuade a jury.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

• TODAY: Church officials 'did not fail to comply with the law' in reporting Wehmeyer abuse, according to law enforcement officials

MPR News obtained the document after Choi's announcement and showed it to him and his top prosecutors. They said they'd never seen it or heard any mention of it during the police investigation. Choi has asked the St. Paul police to explain why the letter wasn't included as part of the investigative file provided to prosecutors.

Police Commander Mary Nash said she'd have to review the investigative file before answering questions about any documents. Police spokesman Howie Padilla later said he had not heard of it. And he said it could prompt police to reopen the investigation.

Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger served as chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 2008 until her resignation in April 2013.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Jennifer Haselberger, former chancellor for canonical affairs at the archdiocese, told MPR News that she alerted police to the existence of the document in November and said she told police copies of the document could be obtained at the chancery in St. Paul, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, or from Wehmeyer.  

It's unclear why the police did not obtain it in the course of their months-long investigation. Joe Kueppers, the chancellor for civil affairs, said late Wednesday afternoon that police had just called and asked for a copy of the documents obtained by MPR News. The archdiocese turned over the documents, he said.  

Nienstedt's decree begins, "On June 18, 2012, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis received a complaint that Reverend Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest of this Archdiocese, supplied alcohol and sexually explicit images to a minor, and fondled or attempted to fondle the minor's genitals. I have concluded that this constitutes information which 'at least seems to be true.'" 


"We believe that the document can be easily misinterpreted. It does not jibe with all the other information we have," said Sarah Mealey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. 

The document, though, lines up with previous reports by MPR News that showed the victim's mother called the archdiocese to report the abuse on June 18. The letter indicates that top church officials waited at least two days to act on information that a priest could be sexually abusing children in a camper in a parish parking lot. Wehmeyer was later convicted of sexually abusing two boys, ages 12 and 14, and possessing child pornography. 

• Timeline: Explore a timeline of the Wehmeyer case 

The archdiocese released a statement after the news conference thanking law enforcement for "their thorough investigation and clearing of the archdiocese" in the cases of Wehmeyer and a priest accused of possessing child pornography.

• TODAY: No charges for Shelley in child pornography investigation

"In addition, we join Mr. Choi in reminding all mandatory reporters to immediately bring every accusation of child sexual abuse forward to civil authorities," it said. "The archdiocese makes every possible effort to adhere to this law strictly and directs everyone in local Church ministry to do the same."

Nienstedt, through spokesman Jim Accurso, declined an interview request. 


THE ARCHBISHOP'S DECREE

Nienstedt wrote in the document that he was appointing Vicar General Peter Laird to "act as the investigator in this matter" in accordance with the laws of the Catholic Church. 

The Rev. Peter Laird
The Rev. Peter Laird resigned from his position as the archbishop's top deputy in October.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

"In conducting his investigation, Father Laird is to take care that such an investigation does nothing to harm Father Wehmeyer's name or to violate his right to protect his privacy," Nienstedt wrote. "Father Laird should also avoid taking any action which may interfere with or hinder any criminal investigation."

Laird resigned Oct. 3, 2013, following an MPR News investigation that showed Laird, Nienstedt, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, and former Vicar General Kevin McDonough had failed to warn parishioners of Wehmeyer's sexual addiction and sexual interest in young men.

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese knew of Wehmeyer's sexual misbehavior, yet kept him in ministry (Sept. 23, 2013)

A second document obtained by MPR News — another decree signed by Nienstedt on June 20, 2012 — outlined restrictions that would be placed on Wehmeyer while police investigated. 

Nienstedt prohibited Wehmeyer from serving as pastor or saying Mass publicly. He forced Wehmeyer to move out of the Blessed Sacrament rectory and told him not to enter "any campus or building of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament or any other parish or school of the Archdiocese, as well as their environs." 

  

The archbishop said Wehmeyer could continue to dress as a priest but urged him not to, "for the good of the Church and his own good." He encouraged Wehmeyer to get an attorney. 

After Wehmeyer was charged and pleaded guilty, Nienstedt signed a third decree, announcing his decision to ask Pope Benedict to dismiss Wehmeyer from the priesthood. Nienstedt wrote that he would refer the case to the Vatican office that handles clergy sexual abuse claims. 


NO CHARGES

  Choi emphasized that today's announcement was limited to one small piece of much broader, ongoing inquiry.   

"I continue to be troubled by some of the church's reporting practices that manifest in some of the other cases that are currently under investigation, and in this case as well," he said.

  Victims' attorney Jeff Anderson asked the final question at the news conference. Anderson was the first to expose the failure of Twin Cities bishops and priests to report the sexual abuse of children nearly three decades ago.

Jeff Anderson
Attorney Jeff Anderson is surrounded by reporters after a news conference about an investigation into the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office Jan. 29, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

  He asked why prosecutors aren't charging top church officials with obstruction of justice for their handling of the Wehmeyer case.   

Smith, the police chief, told Anderson, "I've asked those questions about processes. And I will tell you, going back to that time, were my investigators happy? No, they weren't."  

Police said they have seven open cases involving clergy sexual abuse, many of which go back several decades. 


A SECRET REVEALED

The abuse allegations surfaced over several weeks in June of 2012, according to the original police report.  

• Timeline: Explore a timeline of the Wehmeyer case 

Two young girls told their mother on May 31, 2012, that  one of their brothers might have sexually abused them, according to the police report. The mother didn't understand how her son could've learned about sex already, and she asked him if he'd been watching pornography.

The camper
Wehmeyer parked his camper in the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament during the summer, for easy access.
Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Police Department

Yes, the boy said, according to the police report; Wehmeyer had shown it to him. The mother confronted Wehmeyer, who denied it.

Wehmeyer invited the mother and her son into the living room of the rectory, according to the police report. He said he'd caught the boy using his computer in the camper and then asked him to confess. The boy denied the accusation "and hung his head down" in disbelief, the police report said.

A few days later, the mother met with the Rev. John Paul Erickson at the Church of Saint Agnes and told him that she thought one of her boys had sexually abused her two younger daughters. Erickson urged her to call police. 

Father John Paul Erickson
The Rev. John Paul Erickson, center, leads Catholics in a candlelight rosary procession Oct. 4, 2013, from the State Capitol to the Cathedral of St. Paul. Erickson is the archdiocese's director of worship.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

The mother would later tell police that the conversation with Erickson was part of a confession and therefore the priest was not legally required to report it, Ramsey County prosecutors said.

The mother then talked to a relative, who suggested that someone might have sexually abused her son. The relative came to their home and asked the boy if he wanted to talk to her about it. He "broke down crying and said yes he did," the relative later told police. One of the other brothers also  described sexual abuse by Wehmeyer, according to the police report.

The mother called Erickson and told him about the allegations that Wehmeyer had sexually abused her two boys. Erickson told the mother that he needed to report it to the archdiocese.  The mother would later tell police that this conversation, also, was part of a confession.  

The mother called Erickson again on June 14. She told him that her son said Wehmeyer showed him pornography, gave him beer and cigarettes, exposed his genitals to the boy and touched the boy. At that point, Erickson told the mother she needed to report it to police, the report said.

The mother later told police this conversation, too, was part of a confession. 

Four days later, on June 18, the mother called the director of the archdiocese's victim assistance program and scheduled a meeting for the next day, the mother told police. At that meeting, program director Greta Sawyer recorded an interview with the boy before anyone who worked for the police had talked to him, the mother said.

On June 20, Deacon John Vomastek, the clergy services director and a former St. Paul police officer, emailed a St. Paul police commander regarding the case. "The person we talked about will be relieved of duties tomorrow," Vomastek wrote.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough
The Rev. Kevin McDonough served as the archbishop's deputy from 1991-2009.
Getty Images/File 2007

Before police arrived, McDonough, who was serving as the head of the archdiocese's child safety programs, and Vomastek confronted Wehmeyer at the Blessed Sacrament rectory, according to police. McDonough took the priest's handgun and one of his computers and told Wehmeyer he needed to move out.

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

Wehmeyer was getting ready to leave when Sgt. William Gillet of the St. Paul sex crimes unit showed up.

Wehmeyer refused to answer questions. Gillet tracked Wehmeyer's camper to a storage facility in Oakdale the next day. Gillet told MPR News last year that he suspects Wehmeyer destroyed evidence, because the camper was mostly empty. Police retrieved the computer and the gun from the archdiocese but didn't get much cooperation from McDonough, who never returned the investigator's calls, Gillet said.

McDonough told MPR News in September that he doesn't remember getting any phone calls from Gillet. "I have many, many people tell me they're calling me and they can't reach me," he said, because people forget to leave a message.

Wehmeyer is serving a five-year prison sentence. 

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

MPR News reporters Tom Scheck and Laura Yuen contributed to this report.


ARCHBISHOP NIENSTEDT'S DECREES



Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation