Abusive priest: Church officials never asked for list of victims

Rev. Thomas Adamson
Thomas Adamson, a former Catholic priest who has admitted to sexually abusing children, said in a deposition made public Wednesday that he was never asked by church officials to identify all the children he'd abused, even though some officials knew he'd abused young boys as early as 1964.
Photo courtesy Keenan family

A former Catholic priest who has admitted to sexually abusing children said in a deposition made public Wednesday that he was never asked by church officials to identify all the children he'd abused, even though some officials knew he'd abused young boys as early as 1964.

Former Rev. Thomas Adamson, 80, was called to testify under oath in a lawsuit alleging that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. The man who filed the suit claims he was sexually abused by Adamson in the 1970s.

Adamson admitted in the deposition to abusing at least 10 boys while serving in the Diocese of Winona and in positions at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Some top-ranking officials knew that Adamson had abused children as far back as 1964, according to Adamson's deposition. But none reported the abuse to police. Officials instead transferred Adamson to schools and parishes. Adamson has never been criminally convicted and was officially removed from the priesthood just five years ago.

Adamson has been the target of lawsuits, alleging that he sexually abused minors, since the mid-1980s. Officials with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis previously named Adamson on a list of priests who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor. He was also named on a list by the Diocese of Winona of priests who faced "not implausible" allegations of sexually abusing children. Adamson is a defendant in the first lawsuit filed in 2013 under a new Minnesota law that allows victims of child sexual abuse to bring claims decades after the abuse occurred.

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

During the deposition released Wednesday by Jeff Anderson & Associates, which represents victims, Adamson admitted that he abused a 14-year-old boy in the early 1960s, starting when he served as assistant principal at St. Adrian's High School in Adrian, Minn.

• Adamson deposition: Read the full transcript

"Did you at that time in your state of mind, did you realize, 'Look, I'm a priest, I'm an adult, this is a kid, this is a crime?' Did that go through your head?" Anderson asked Adamson at the deposition for the lawsuit.

"Never," Adamson responded. "I looked at it more as a sin than a crime."

Adamson said he admitted to Diocese of Winona Bishop Edward Fitzgerald as early as 1964 that he had abused another 14-year-old boy while serving as assistant priest at St. John the Baptist and superintendent of St. Mary Grade School and Loretto High School, all in Caledonia, Minn.

"All I remember him saying is, 'This is serious,' and he was disappointed," Adamson said of his discussion with Fitzgerald about the abuse.

Adamson said he also abused another boy during the same time period, although he said Fitzgerald didn't ask during their talk if he'd abused any other children.

"I suppose I did a quasi-apology or said I was sorry," Adamson said. "I realized it was serious and that he was my boss and he was on the case."

Adamson said church officials sent him to a series of counselors, including a stint with the head of the Rochester State Hospital. Adamson said he continued to sexually abuse boys despite the therapy.

"I've had treatments and other treatments and it isn't like going in to have a tooth pulled or something — it's sort of ongoing," Adamson said during the deposition. "Where it was leading me or if it helped, I don't know that."

When relatives of one of his victims threatened to go public in the Diocese of Winona, Adamson was transferred to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis under the authority of then Archbishop John Roach, starting in 1975.

Adamson said he badly wanted to return to the Diocese of Winona. A Catholic therapist advocated for Adamson's return later that year, although the Winona diocese's then-Bishop Loras Watters was wary.

"I am convinced that he doesn't even begin to appreciate the number of people in at least five different communities across the entire diocese who have finally pieced together incidents occurring over a 15-year span," Watters wrote in a memo rejecting Adamson's return.

Adamson claimed it wasn't until a victim came forward to sue in the 1980s that he realized he'd committed a crime. In a separate deposition about Adamson last month, former archdiocesan chancellor Robert Carlson, now archbishop of St. Louis, said he wasn't sure in the 1980s that he knew it was illegal for an adult to have sex with a child.

The first of Adamson's many assignments in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was in 1976. He served as temporary administrator at St. Boniface in Saint Bonifacius, Minn., where he has admitted to abusing at least one boy, although others mentioned in the deposition have alleged abuse that Adamson denies.

• Rev. Thomas Adamson: Assignments, status, history

Adamson eventually served at churches in St. Paul Park, Columbia Heights and Burnsville. He was put on a leave of absence after the first lawsuit against him surfaced in 1984.

Adamson said Diocese of Winona Bishop Bernard Harrington offered him the choice between resigning from the priesthood or going through a public canonical trial.

"To volunteer to do it seemed to be the better thing," Adamson said. "I was in my 70s, age-wise, and I had been under suspension for quite some time, and I knew I would never function publicly as a priest again."

In 2012, the Winona diocese wrote to Adamson after he moved back into the area, cautioning him to stay away from diocesan property.

"Given your history, we at the diocese view you as a potential threat to the safety of children in our schools and in our parishes," the letter said. "[F]rom this day forward, you will not be welcome or permitted to enter onto the premises of any of the parishes or schools within the Diocese of Winona."

But throughout the five decades that Adamson has been involved in the Catholic Church in Minnesota, he said, no officials who confronted him about specific incidents, whether from the Diocese of Winona or the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, had requested any information about other victims. And no church officials contacted police about the allegations.

"There would be meetings of specific cases, but I was never asked to list names," Adamson said in the deposition.

This most recent lawsuit involving Adamson, which prompted his testimony, has already forced the depositions of Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, former Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn and current St. Louis Archbishop Carlson, who served in the Twin Cities for 24 years. Two former vicars general of the Twin Cities archdiocese, the Rev. Peter Laird and the Rev. Kevin McDonough, have also testified. The lawsuit filed by victim's attorney Anderson has also required church officials to make public the names of abusive priests and turn over more than 70,000 pages of internal documents to the plaintiff's attorneys. The attorneys have also asked a judge to compel the archdiocese to turn over electronic data like emails, texts and computer data relating to accused priests.

MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran contributed to this report.

Deposition: Thomas Adamson