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Panel finds 'confusing and inadequate' archdiocese system for sex abuse protections

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The Cathedral of St. Paul
The Cathedral of St. Paul, in St. Paul, Minn.
Regina McCombs / MPR News

Poor oversight and flawed policies are among the serious shortcomings inside the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that opened the door "for some priests to harm children," a panel ordered by the archbishop concluded  Monday.

• Betrayed by Silence: An MPR News investigation

"Behavioral warning signs were minimized or inappropriately rationalized," the panel  said, adding the archdiocese also has a "confusing and inadequate" system to report complaints of sexual abuse of children.

The report by the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force calls for criminal background checks of priests at least every six years and an anonymous hotline for complaints. The hotline would forward allegations of child sexual abuse to the head of the archdiocese's child safety programs.

The task force did not criticize anyone by name or hold any church official responsible for the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It did not recommend any punishment for bishops or other senior officials who covered up abuse allegations. And, although it called for transparency, it urged that some information on abusive priests be kept private. 

Archbishop Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt, leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, heads to a deposition Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in St. Paul. The questioning comes as 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

The report provides a list of 32 people interviewed by the task force, including Archbishop John Nienstedt and former archbishop Harry Flynn. The task force tried to interview Nienstedt's former deputy, but the archdiocese wrongly claimed it didn't know how to locate him, the report said. No victims of clergy sexual abuse or their family members are included on the list.  

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the report on Monday, saying that the task force simply stated the obvious "without naming those who ignored, hid, minimized or enabled heinous crimes against children."

Claiming that "'mistakes' have been made" and that "minor 'tweaks' in job titles and church policies will make abuse by clergy and cover ups by bishops a problem in the past" is "silly and deceptive," said SNAP outreach director Barbara Dorris. Nowhere in the report, she added, "does it say call police or law enforcement."

Task force members and a spokesman for the archdiocese declined to comment. Nienstedt has declined all interview requests since last fall.  In a statement released by the archdiocese Monday, Nienstedt thanked the task force members and vowed to adopt the recommendations. The report, he said, "will guide us in fulfilling our important goals which I have stated before and repeat now: the protection of children, the healing of victims, and the restoration of trust of the faithful and of our clergy who are serving our communities with honor."

Nienstedt called for the task force in October after an MPR News investigation found the archbishop failed to report alleged child pornography to police and appointed an admitted sex addict, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, as pastor of two parishes. Wehmeyer is in prison for sexually abusing two sons of a parish employee and possessing child pornography. Many of the revelations in the MPR News reports came from Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese's former chancellor for canonical affairs who resigned in protest last year.

Reginald Whitt
The Rev. Reginald Whitt, the archdiocese's vicar for ministerial standards, announces to the media the formation of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force in October 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In October, Nienstedt chose the Rev. Reginald Whitt, a Dominican priest and University of St. Thomas law professor, to create the seven-member task force. The group met 23 times between October and March, according to the report.

On Monday, Whitt said in a statement that he was studying the task force's recommendations "for the purpose of developing practicable norms, structures, and procedures" in place that would conform to civil and canon law.

Nienstedt shielded top deputy

The task force report raises  questions about the actions of Nienstedt and other top officials during the panel's investigation. 

The Rev. Peter Laird
The Rev. Peter Laird served as Archbishop John Nienstedt's top deputy from 2009 until his fall 2013 resignation.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A footnote in the report's appendix revealed that Nienstedt withheld information from the task force about how to contact his former top deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, who resigned as vicar general in October. An unidentified person at the archdiocese told the task force that Laird was on leave and that the archdiocese didn't know how to reach him, it said.

However, the task force later learned that Laird had written to Nienstedt and asked to talk to the task force. 

"In the letter, [Laird] provided a cell phone number and indicated we could reach him via his Archdiocese email (despite the fact that that Archdiocese had represented that they had no way to contact him)," it said.

Nienstedt did not tell the task force about the letter, according to the footnote. 

"The Task Force is disappointed that the Archdiocese was not more transparent with respect to the situation with Father Laird," it said. "The Task Force sees this failure to communicate and lack of urgency as an example of the kind of issue that the Archdiocese needs to address to change its culture."

The task force completed its report without interviewing Laird. It's unclear why the task force relied on the archdiocese to provide contact information for Laird or why the archdiocese would not have that information available regardless of any letter from Laird. 

As of last year, Laird continued to receive regular salary checks from the archdiocese. His mother, Kathy Laird, is a prominent local supporter of the Catholic Church who previously directed the archdiocese's Office of Marriage, Family and Life and worked alongside Nienstedt.

"A flawed organizational structure"

The report concluded that "despite Archdiocesan policies and procedures designed to protect against clergy sexual abuse of minors, a flawed organizational structure with little oversight and accountability created opportunities for some priests to harm children."

Among its findings:

• "For many years, the Archdiocese concentrated too much power in one or two individuals to make decisions regarding allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors. These individuals were not subject to adequate oversight nor their decisions and actions subject to monitoring and audit. Processes and decisions have appeared secretive and sequestered, even if that was not the intent."

• "Communication within the Archdiocese and with the faithful, the public, the media, and victims of abusive clergy about clergy sexual abuse of minors has been inadequate and, at times, non-existent."

Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger served as the archdiocese's chancellor for canonical affairs from 2008 until her resignation in April 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The task force also faulted the archdiocese's record-keeping. "Among other things, facts that relate to clergy misconduct are often unavailable to decision-makers at important points in the process," it said.

However, the MPR News investigation found that top church officials had extensive information about priests accused of sexually abusing children and in several cases decided not to act. Nienstedt reviewed each abusive priest's monitoring plan each year and received detailed memos about the alleged crimes, according to documents  reviewed by MPR News and interviews with Haselberger, the former chancellor, and others.

The task force also said that the archdiocese has "no central repository for incidents of clerical misconduct."  The report did not mention that the archdiocese had rejected a computer program that would have centralized its records on clergy misconduct. Haselberger said the archdiocese bought the program but top church officials decided not to use it because they worried that the information could help victims sue the church.

McDonough scrutinized

The task force report appeared to single out former top deputy Kevin McDonough for criticism without mentioning him by name. McDonough served as vicar general from 1991 to 2008 under Archbishops John Roach and Harry Flynn, and then oversaw the archdiocese's child safety program until last fall. 

The Rev. Kevin McDonough
The Rev. Kevin McDonough served as the archbishop's deputy from 1991 until 2008.
Getty Images/File 2007

The report found that those two jobs "are both distinct and demanding, and should not be held by the same person." It's unclear whether the task force knew that McDonough did not hold both positions at the same time.

As vicar general, McDonough had no independent authority. His job was to carry out the orders of the archbishop. Yet, the report said, McDonough "was allowed to exercise too much discretion in the handling of cases without oversight or review by the Clergy Review Board; and that he sometimes failed to inform the Clergy Review Board of allegations and violations of policy."

The report does not explain that the archdiocese's attorney, not McDonough, had served as the liaison between the clergy review board and the chancery.   McDonough declined to be interviewed by the task force, according to the report. He did not respond to an interview request by MPR News.

Haselberger, the former chancellor who resigned in protest, also declined to be interviewed by the task force. Her attorney told the group that any information it needed to know could be found in the memos Haselberger wrote to Nienstedt and other top officials, Haselberger said. 

The report does not say whether the task force reviewed Haselberger's memos. 

In an appendix, the task force noted that it reviewed "thousands of pages of documents." They included "sample clergy files" and records from the clergy review board. Most of the documents listed are public.  

Task force members did not review the file on Wehmeyer, the priest now in prison for child sexual abuse. Instead, they "relied upon its counsel's review" of the file. A summary of Wehmeyer's file was sent  to Whitt, the priest appointed by Nienstedt to create the task force, the report said. The task force said it kept the summary private because it includes information on victims and "confidential medical information." 

The task force did not explain why it could not release a redacted version or whether the victims or their family members objected to the information being made public.

The report did not provide the costs of the task force or how it was being funded. The archdiocese has repeatedly declined to comment on how it pays for attorneys at several law firms. 

The archdiocese is  represented by lawyers from two firms in Minnesota, and has requested assistance from another firm in Milwaukee, as it continues to battle victims' attorneys in a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court. 

As part of that lawsuit, victims' attorneys will take the deposition of McDonough on Wednesday. Attorneys indicated in court earlier this year that they plan to question McDonough on how the archdiocese handled clergy sexual abuse cases under three archbishops. 

Victims' attorneys allege the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona have created a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret.