Documents made public Monday in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis show that Archbishop John Nienstedt made false statements under oath in April about his knowledge of a priest accused of child sexual abuse.
Nienstedt said in an April 2 deposition that he didn't know until March that a priest accused in the 1980s of sexually assaulting at least one teenage girl and "sexually exploiting" several women was still in ministry, a violation of church policy.
"I was not aware that he was publicly in ministry," Nienstedt said, referring to the Rev. Kenneth LaVan. "And as soon as I realized it, I had his faculties removed." Though retired, LaVan continued to assist with Masses at Twin Cities parishes until he was formally removed from all ministry in December 2013. Nienstedt said he learned of LaVan's continuing ministry as part of a review of clergy files conducted by the Kinsale Group, a firm hired by the archdiocese.
However, documents released Monday show that, year after year, the archbishop received updates on LaVan and approved his continuing work at Twin Cities parishes, as recently as Aug. 15, 2013.
Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church
MPR News is Reader Funded
Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.
For example, Nienstedt received an annual report on LaVan in 2013 from a church official who monitors abusive priests. The monitor described "two face to face contacts" with LaVan over the past year and noted that LaVan assists at "a few parishes in the metro area when asked," primarily St. Olaf in Minneapolis.
Nienstedt reviewed the information and approved the arrangement for another year.
The documents also indicate that Nienstedt had spent time socially with LaVan. On June 24, 2013, Nienstedt wrote a letter to the accused priest: "I write to thank you and Father Custodio for your gift of the Wild Turkey that you gave me in Rochester. That was very thoughtful of you. I will remember the two of you when I consume the contents."
Through a spokesman, Nienstedt declined an interview request.
The archdiocese released a statement from Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens noting that the archdiocese had "disclosed that there were substantiated claims of sexual abuse of a minor against Kenneth LaVan" in February 2014 and had disclosed details about allegations against him the following month. It said the archdiocese had removed LaVan from ministry and required him to undergo treatment, after which he was allowed to return to ministry. The statement added:
"Under today's standards and protocols, if we were to receive similar allegations regarding a priest, police would immediately be notified."
The statement also said that under current standards, "A priest who has sexually abused a child may indeed receive treatment, but would not be considered again for ministry, no matter what progress he might make in treatment."
Despite the reference to "today's standards," the archdiocese has pledged zero tolerance toward abusive priests since 2002.
Over the past 10 months, MPR News has reported that Nienstedt gave special payments to priests who had admitted to sexually assaulting children, failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual interest in younger men, and did not report alleged sex crimes to police. Some parishioners and priests and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have called for Nienstedt to resign. In an editorial July 17, the New York Times said the archdiocese "has made a mockery of accountability" and asked Pope Francis to intervene.
In an interview with MPR News last month, Nienstedt said he would not resign.
The LaVan documents are among the first to be released by victims' attorneys as part of a massive lawsuit that accuses the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. Victims' attorneys Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan have received more than 60,000 pages of documents from the archdiocese. Anderson has said he will release files on other priests as the case heads to trial in Ramsey County District Court in late September.
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 alleged 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."
LaVan was ordained in 1958 and served at seven parishes from 1958 to 1998. He has declined to comment on the allegations. Documents show that LaVan denies sexually assaulting children but has admitted to kissing at least one.
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 several statements over the past year.
"There are no offending priests in active ministry in our archdiocese," Nienstedt wrote in a response to written questions from 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 of those statements, LaVan was still in ministry. He wasn't removed until December 2013 — 25 years after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. The archdiocese provided limited information on LaVan earlier this year, as it recounted in its statement on Monday.
On Feb. 14, the archdiocese included LaVan on a list of priests "against whom claims of sexual abuse of a minor within our archdiocese have been found to be substantiated."
On March 31, the archdiocese acknowledged in a statement that it had "received reports in 1988 that LaVan had abused two girls between 1958 and 1970" and that it sent LaVan to receive treatment in 1989. The archdiocese provided settlements to the two victims in 1989 and 1992, it said. After treatment, LaVan returned to minister at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lino Lakes and retired in 1998, it said. However, the archdiocese said LaVan "continued to provide limited assistance at St. Olaf in Minneapolis (and other parishes as requested) until December 2013."
The archdiocese also admitted in the statement that LaVan had been accused "of inappropriate sexual relationships with adult women, including a woman who suffered from mental illness and a brain injury."
In sworn testimony earlier this year, other church leaders have sought to distance themselves from the LaVan case.
Nienstedt's former top deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, testified in the same lawsuit that he didn't know of the allegations against LaVan or that he had remained in ministry. "I've heard the name Ken LaVan," Laird said. "I haven't heard anything about Ken LaVan in this context."
McDonough testified that he "wasn't aware" of settlements reached by the archdiocese with victims in 1989 and 1992. "At least I'm not [aware of it] now," he said. "I may have been at the time."
However, documents show that McDonough was involved in settlement talks and met with a psychologist who treated one of the victims. In a May 18, 1989, memo to Archbishop John Roach, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Carlson and the Rev. Michael O'Connell, McDonough wrote that the woman's psychologist believed LaVan "did have forcible sexual contact with her" and worried "that the emotional stress of any adversarial situation, such as a lawsuit, would probably endanger her life."
Carlson, who now serves as the archbishop of St. Louis, testified on May 23 that he didn't know LaVan had been accused of abusing kids. "I don't believe I ever did, but, again, there may be a memo," he said.