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Priest kept in ministry until December despite credible allegations of child sexual abuse

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Archbishop John Nienstedt kept a priest in ministry until December despite credible allegations of child sexual abuse 25 years ago — a decision that contradicts Nienstedt's public statements and the national policy of Catholic bishops in the United States.

The archdiocese included the information about the Rev. Kenneth LaVan and other priests as part of a statement released Monday evening about documents provided to victims' attorneys in advance of a deposition of Nienstedt scheduled for  Wednesday.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

The archbishop will testify under oath about his handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the mid-1970s.

The archdiocese learned in 1988 of allegations that LaVan sexually abused two girls and considered the claims to be substantiated, according to the statement. Yet, it said, LaVan "continued to provide limited assistance at St. Olaf in Minneapolis (and other parishes as requested) until December 2013."

Catholic bishops in the United States have vowed to permanently remove from ministry any priest who committed "even a single act of sexual abuse of minor." Bishops adopted the policy, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in response to the national clergy sexual abuse scandal in 2002.

Nienstedt renewed that promise in recent months after a series of investigative reports by MPR News showed that the archbishop and other top officials failed to report abuse allegations to police, did not warn parishioners of a priest's sexual addiction, and gave extra payments to priests who had admitted to sexually abusing children.

"There are no offending priests in active ministry in our archdiocese," Nienstedt wrote in a response to written questions by MPR News on Oct. 24. "Anyone who is a known danger to a minor or vulnerable adult is immediately removed from ministry and investigated."

Nienstedt also said that the archdiocese has followed the Charter since his arrival as archbishop.

  In a statement on Oct. 4, the archdiocese criticized news reports for creating "a false impression about the commitment of the Archdiocese to identify and address misconduct by priests."

  Two days later, in a written statement, Nienstedt said: "There can be no room for misconduct among our clergy and our standard must be zero tolerance for abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. We hold a sacred trust. Our very vocation requires the highest standard of conduct so that all may be drawn to the person of Jesus Christ through our witness."

  At the time, LaVan was in ministry. 

Nienstedt, reached through spokesman Jim Accurso, declined to be interviewed. Accurso provided a brief statement via email: "Our extensive and comprehensive file review brought LaVan to our attention in December 2013. When those statements were made, we understood them to be accurate and true."

Accurso did not explain why the archdiocese's statement yesterday said it first learned of LaVan's abuse in 1988. 

MPR News has previously documented the archdiocese's knowledge of LaVan's alleged abuse in a story published Feb 19. It included a copy of an internal memo that showed top church deputy Kevin McDonough alerted then-Archbishop Harry Flynn to LaVan's abuse in November 2005. 

"It embarrasses me to acknowledge once again a lapse of memory on my own part," McDonough wrote. "Although I had dealt with LaVan for many years about his boundary violations with adult females, I had forgotten that there were two allegations in the late 1980s concerning sexual involvement with teen-aged girls."

McDonough also sent the memo to then-Auxiliary Bishop Richard Pates, then-chancellor Dominica Brennan and attorney Andrew Eisenzimmer. Pates now serves as the bishop of Des Moines, Iowa. 

Top church officials also discussed the allegations against LaVan in early 2013 and included him on a list of priests who were being monitored for sexual misconduct, according to former archdiocese chancellor Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned last April in protest of the archdiocese's handling of abuse cases.

The list, which was was shared with Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche and top archdiocese lawyer Joe Kueppers, said that LaVan was accused of sexually abusing minors, she said. 

LaVan has declined to comment on the allegations.

Senior officials discussed the list in a meeting in early 2013, Haselberger said. The group included Haselberger, Kueppers, McDonough, then-vicar general Peter Laird, monitor John Selvig, judicial vicar Timothy Cloutier, attorney Andrew Eisenzimmer and the Rev. Dan Griffith, she said.

The statement released by the archdiocese Monday also said that another abusive priest, the Rev. Michael Stevens, worked as an I.T. consultant for the archdiocese until November. However, the archdiocese spokesman said Stevens' departure wasn't related to his abuse. "The archdiocese no longer needed Stevens' IT specialization in November 2013," the spokesman wrote in an email to MPR News.

Stevens pleaded guilty in 1987 to sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy at a motel in Fridley, Minn. He had invited the boy on a "camping trip" to the motel, where he asked the boy to undress in front of him, according to a report from the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. The report said Stevens "stated the reason for having the victim do this was so he could observe his sexual organs."

The archdiocese's statement Monday also provided summary information on the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who was sentenced to prison last year for sexual abuse of two boys and possession of child pornography. Accurso said Wehmeyer remains a priest because Pope Francis has not yet responded to a request by Nienstedt to dismiss him.

The statement summarized allegations against a fourth priest, the Rev. Paul Palmitessa. "In August 1990, an adult male reported to the archdiocese that Palmitessa had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him in 1982, when he was a minor," the statement said.

Palmitessa, who moved to the Diocese of San Diego in the 1980s and continues to live in California, admitted the abuse in an interview with MPR News in February. "It's something that happened 30-some years ago, and since then, nothing has ever happened. And I just don't see any need for bringing this up again. I accept responsibility for it, but why is it so necessary that people have to know what the story is?"

He expressed frustration with the publicity around his actions. "Each one of us has certain things in our life that we regret," he said, "and the important thing is, once the thing has been resolved, let it go, and move on with life."

He called it "a dead issue, a sorry issue."

In 1999, 17 years after the abuse, the victim killed his wife and committed suicide, the statement said.