Judge won't dismiss clergy sex abuse suit; Nov. 3 trial set

Judge John Van de North
Ramsey County District Court Judge John Van de North
Courtesy of Minnesota Judicial Branch

In a sharply worded ruling, a Ramsey County judge has rejected a request by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to dismiss a massive clergy sex abuse lawsuit.

Judge John Van de North ruled that a jury should decide whether the archdiocese created a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret and was negligent in its handling of Thomas Adamson, a former priest who has admitted to sexual contact with minors.

The decision paves the way for a trial to start Nov. 3. It will be the first time in the country that a public nuisance claim against a Catholic diocese will go to trial, victims' attorney Mike Finnegan said.

Van de North cited several abuse cases in a 17-page memorandum released Wednesday along with the order.

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

"The Court need look no further than Fathers Adamson and Curtis Wehmeyer as unfortunate examples of the horrendous consequences that can flow from intentional and misguided efforts to protect pedophile priests at the expense of minors," Van de North wrote.

Wehmeyer, a priest of the archdiocese, was sentenced to prison last year for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography. An MPR News investigation found that church leaders knew of Wehmeyer's sexual interest in younger men and did not warn parishioners.

"Failing to disclose information about an accused priest is akin to, and conceivably more offensive and dangerous, than other acts that have been considered public nuisances," Van de North wrote, citing nuisance examples including keeping "worrisome dogs," "maintaining houses of prostitution" and swearing in public.

The lawsuit, brought by an unidentified man who says he was sexually abused by a priest in the 1970s, has led to the release of thousands of internal documents on abusive priests and forced the disclosure of the names of priests deemed "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona.

Finnegan, who represents the man known as Doe 1, called the ruling "a very important decision" for his client and "all the survivors in our shared efforts to get truth and transparency and to make sure that all the secrets in this archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona about child sex abuse are made public."

Finnegan and his colleague Jeff Anderson, known as two of the leading attorneys in the country on clergy sex abuse, are considering filing similar public nuisance claims in other states, he said.

In Minnesota, Finnegan said, the trial will allow the public to learn more about how the archdiocese covered up abuse. "We believe that public disclosure of these long-held secrets is by far the best way for kids to be safe," he said.

Archdiocese lawyer Tom Wieser downplayed the significance of Van de North's ruling. "In many ways, this is essentially a confirmation of his pretty clear indications at our summary judgment hearing about what his inclination was," he said.

Adamson cover-up

Rev. Thomas Adamson
Father Thomas Adamson, in a crop from a photo provided by the Keenan family at Jim Keenan's confirmation at Risen Savior Catholic Church in Burnsville in 1985.
Photo courtesy Keenan family

Nearly three decades ago, Adamson was at the center of the first clergy sex abuse scandal in the Twin Cities archdiocese.

Anderson shocked parishioners in 1987 when he revealed that Winona Bishop Loras Watters and Twin Cities Archbishop John Roach knew of allegations against Adamson and failed to call police.

Memos made public in 1987 showed that the Rev. Robert Carlson, now Archbishop of St. Louis, had met with the parents of one of Adamson's victims. Carlson described the meeting in a 1984 memo to Roach: "The statute of limitations does not run out for 2 1/2 years. The mother and father are considering reporting this to police." Roach responded by transferring Adamson to a new parish.

The scandal led to landmark financial settlements in the late 1980s and early 1990s for several Adamson victims. More victims have come forward since then.

Adamson could not be reached for comment. He has admitted under oath to many of the abuse allegations. "I always felt it was a problem that I could control or live with," he said in a 1986 deposition.

In the order Tuesday, Van de North wrote that "the record is littered with documentary evidence of the Diocese concealing Father Adamson's sexual abuse of minors, both before and after his alleged abuse of Doe 1."

'They weren't alone'

Archdiocesan lawyers have sought to cast doubt on whether Doe 1 has been harmed by the archdiocese's decision to keep information on abusive priests secret.

At a hearing earlier this year, archdiocesan lawyers questioned why the man has not spoken out publicly or become a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group often criticized by church officials.

In his order, Van de North cited Doe 1's sworn testimony and a psychological report as evidence of harm.

Under oath, Doe 1 said he worried about other victims suffering in silence, according to excerpts of the deposition quoted by Van de North.

"A lot of those people feel alone, like maybe they're the only ones, maybe it's something that only happened to them," Doe 1 testified. "And by making this stuff public, maybe it can help relieve some of that, that they weren't the only ones, that they weren't alone."

Van de North also cited the opinion of psychologist Robert Geffner, who met with Doe 1 at the request of his attorneys. Geffner's report said the man cried when he talked about "the church's attempt to protect the perpetrators and discredit the victims," according to Van de North's order.

Geffner found that the man's feelings that he should have done more to protect children "likely exacerbated feelings of low self-esteem and possible suicidal ideation that he has been struggling with since his own abuse."

Sealed documents

In a separate order, Van de North denied a request from Doe 1's attorneys to loosen the criteria for unsealing documents on accused priests.

The sealed documents involve priests whose allegations were deemed "not credible" by church officials. Finnegan and Anderson have argued that the archdiocese cannot be trusted to decide whether a priest is guilty of a sex crime. Archdiocesan lawyers have said that the publication of the information would harm the reputations of falsely accused priests.

Van de North has previously appointed retired judge Robert Schumacher to serve as a "special master" in the lawsuit to handle disputes over documents and other issues. Since then, attorneys on both sides have contested the criteria for unsealing documents.

In June, Schumacher ordered that abuse allegations must be "determined credible and reliable" or "meet the definition of sexual abuse" under Minnesota law to be unsealed.

Finnegan had asked Van de North to expand the criteria so that it would include priests with a "propensity" to abuse children.

"This might be one of the most important issues in this case," Finnegan argued at a hearing last month. In his order, Van de North rejected Finnegan's argument but clarified that the archdiocese has the burden of proof in disputes over sealed documents.

Finnegan said he and Anderson will ask the court to unseal documents on several priests.

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