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Archbishop Nienstedt answering questions about clergy sexual abuse scandal in deposition today

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Archbishop Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt, leader of the Twin Cities Catholic church, on his way to a deposition in St. Paul Wednesday. The questioning is part of a lawsuit brought by a man who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the mid-1970s.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Archbishop John Nienstedt will testify under oath today about his handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations in St. Paul and Minneapolis, marking the first time that the leader of the Twin Cities archdiocese has been forced to answer questions about his role in the scandal.

The deposition is part of a lawsuit brought by a man who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the mid-1970s. The lawsuit claims the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance by refusing for decades to release information on abusive priests. It says that the actions of top church officials continue to put children at risk.

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

Church lawyers have tried to block the deposition for months, arguing that it isn't relevant to the case and could be used by the man's attorneys as "a means of harassment, oppression and embarrassment to these witnesses, as well as for the purpose of self-promotion and negative publicity against The Archdiocese." Those arguments failed to convince Ramsey County Judge John Van de North and the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

Approaching courtroom
Thomas Wieser and Jennifer Larimore, attorneys with Meier, Kennedy & Quinn, approach a Ramsey County District courtroom where they represented the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in St. Paul on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. The Archdiocese sought the court's permission to release a sealed list of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Van de North also declined to seal the deposition and ordered the archdiocese to turn over thousands of documents about accused priests to lawyers representing the alleged victim. The judge had previously ordered the archdiocese to publicly disclose the names of priests it considered to have been "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse. He also ordered the deposition of former vicar general Kevin McDonough, scheduled for April 16.

Jeff Anderson, an aggressive lawyer who first exposed the archdiocese's cover-up of abuse in the 1980s and has been investigating the archdiocese ever since, will lead the questioning of Nienstedt. Anderson said he expects to release portions of the deposition within 30 days.

Anderson has deposed bishops from across the country, including previous Twin Cities' archbishops Harry Flynn and John Roach, in previous lawsuits. His St. Paul firm also deposed Nienstedt in a separate case in 2006 when Nienstedt was the bishop of New Ulm, according to an archdiocese spokesman. 

This case is unique, however, because it involves the recent actions of an archbishop still in office. It could delve into questions about cases that remain under criminal investigation. In one such case, St. Paul police are investigating whether Nienstedt and other top church officials failed to immediately report allegations of abuse by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer as required by state law. Wehmeyer is now in prison for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.

Curtis Carl Wehmeyer
The Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer is serving time in a Lino Lakes correctional facility for sexual abuse.
Minnesota Department of Corrections

•  Archdiocese knew of priest's sexual misbehavior, yet kept him in ministry (Sept. 23, 2013)

Nienstedt also could face questions about his decision not to report suspected child pornography found on a priest's computer

•  Church hid priest's pornography from police, parishioners (Oct. 4, 2013)

At a private meeting of priests in December, Nienstedt acknowledged that he looked at some of the images, according to a secret recording of the meeting obtained by MPR News. 

"Some of the images that were on Jon Shelley's computer, I couldn't tell if that was a 17-year-old or a 19-year-old," Nienstedt told his priests. "It was very difficult to be able to establish that, and I shouldn't have to do that. The St. Paul police should have to do that, which is what they did."

Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger is the former top canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. She resigned in April.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Police first learned of the images when they received a report last year from Jennifer Haselberger, a top advisor to Nienstedt who later resigned in protest of the archdiocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse.

Nienstedt absent as scandal widened

The archbishop has made few public appearances since MPR News began publishing its investigative reports last fall. The reports exposed how the archdiocese had given special payments to abusive priests, failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual addiction and did not report alleged sex crimes to police. Haselberger, the former chancellor, disclosed much of the information in extensive interviews with MPR News last year. She said she worried that children were at risk of being sexually abused by unreported offenders.

The revelations shook the archdiocese and led to the suspension of a $160 million capital campaign, the departure of top deputy Peter Laird, and calls for Nienstedt's resignation. At the same time, attorneys filed several lawsuits on behalf of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse, prompted by a new state law that allows victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue. 

• Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

Similar laws in other states have led hundreds of victims to file lawsuits - and some dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in response. An archdiocese spokesman has denied any plans to file for bankruptcy here. However, top officials at the archdiocese met last year with bankruptcy attorneys who have represented the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

In December the archdiocese announced that St. Paul police were investigating an allegation that Nienstedt groped a boy during a group confirmation photo session in 2009. An unnamed priest learned of the allegation at the time but waited several years to report it, according to prosecutors. 

Nienstedt denied abusing anyone but said he would step aside from his public duties while police investigated. In March, prosecutors said they would not file charges but later asked police to reopen the case. A spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office wouldn't explain the reason for the request but said it wasn't related to any specific behavior by Nienstedt. 

New revelations

As the legal battles continue, the archdiocese has been forced to release more information about how it dealt with abusive priests.

Earlier this week, the archdiocese acknowledged that Nienstedt kept a priest in ministry until December despite credible allegations of child sexual abuse 25 years ago -- in direct contradiction to 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 attorneys in advance of Nienstedt's deposition.

The archdiocese said it learned in 1988 of allegations that LaVan sexually abused two girls and considered the claims to be substantiated. Yet 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.

"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.

At the time he made those statements, LaVan was still in ministry.

An archdiocese spokesman provided a brief additional statement about LaVan on Tuesday: "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."

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

He also declined to comment on a memo about LaVan written by McDonough, a top church official, to then-Archbishop Flynn in 2005. MPR News published the memo in February.

"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."

Archdiocesan leaders also included LaVan in early 2013 on a list of priests who were being monitored for sexual misconduct, according to Haselberger, the former chancellor.

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.

LaVan has declined to comment on the allegations.

The archdiocese also acknowledged on Monday that the Rev. Michael Stevens, who pleaded guilty in 1987 to sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy, had worked as an I.T. consultant for the archdiocese until November. According to the original investigative report by the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, Stevens took the boy on a "camping trip" to a motel and asked the boy to undress in front of him. Stevens "stated the reason for having the victim do this was so he could observe his sexual organs," the report said.

The archdiocese spokesman said Stevens' recent departure wasn't related to his abuse. "The archdiocese no longer needed Stevens' IT specialization in November 2013," he wrote in an email to MPR News. 

The archdiocese also revealed this week that it received a report in 1990 that the Rev. Paul Palmitessa had sexually abused a child in 1982. 

Palmitessa, who moved to the Diocese of San Diego in the 1980s, admitted the abuse in a phone 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 by Palmitessa, the victim killed his wife and committed suicide.

• Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation