Prosecutor defends clergy abuse probe, but charges unlikely in St. Paul cases

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi praised the archdiocese in 2012 for their handling of the Wehmeyer case.
Alex Kolyer for MPR/File 2012

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi on Wednesday rejected criticism he's done little to investigate clergy sex abuse but acknowledged he does not expect to file charges in 10 abuse cases investigated by St. Paul police.

County prosecutors have expanded their probe of sex abuse claims against Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis priests in recent months, but the nature of the work has made it difficult to "appease the public" in its demand for information, Choi said in an interview.

"Everything is on the table with respect to looking at what happened and what type of responsibility is out there in terms of how all of this happened," he said. However, search warrants are not "necessary right now," he said, adding that the investigation "should not be about a witch hunt."

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

Choi, who is seeking re-election in November, said he plans to announce charging decisions for the St. Paul cases within 30 days. But he acknowledged the statute of limitations will make it difficult or impossible to file charges.

He has yet to decide whether to charge another clergy sex abuse case outside of St. Paul. He declined to name the case, but MPR News has previously reported that the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office is investigating an abuse allegation against the Rev. Gerald Grieman, a retired priest. Grieman has denied any wrongdoing.

Over the past year, Choi has repeatedly rejected requests by victims of clergy sex abuse to convene a grand jury to examine the cover-up.

Those requests came after an MPR News investigation showed that archbishops John Nienstedt, Harry Flynn and John Roach failed to report alleged sex crimes to police and that church leaders gave secret payments to several abusive priests and privately tracked the criminal statute of limitations in several unreported cases.

Choi has also declined to follow the aggressive approach of prosecutors in New York, Philadelphia and several other cities in demanding that the Catholic Church turn over its files on alleged abusers. He's argued a grand jury would have little power under Minnesota law and that its findings would have to remain private if no charges were filed.

Calls to come forward

On Wednesday, Choi said his office was investigating cases vigorously.

He repeated his request for people to contact police regardless of whether abuse occurred too long ago to charge the abuser. He said he's particularly interested in hearing from victims who entered into settlements with the archdiocese, including victims who were not represented by lawyers at the time.

To aid in the broader investigation, Choi said the Ramsey County Board unanimously approved a request Tuesday to hire an assistant county attorney, investigator and student intern to work on the archdiocese investigation for up to a year, starting in October.

Choi said he has assigned 14-year veteran assistant county attorney Tom Ring to the investigation. Ring was among a small group of law enforcement officials who learned of the cover-up before MPR News reported the story last fall.

Former archdiocesan chancellor Jennifer Haselberger had contacted Ring in early 2013 to report alleged child pornography on a priest's computer. Haselberger resigned in April 2013 in protest of the church's handling of clergy sex abuse.

Two police investigations found no evidence of child pornography, but the police officer who led the first investigation has questioned whether the church turned over all the evidence.

Word of more staff didn't impress victims advocates who've demanded Choi prosecute top church officials for covering up sex crimes.

David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, said he's grateful that Choi has requested more staffers but thinks that Choi could have done a better job with the resources he already had.

"We're troubled by what seems to be a fairly slow effort on the part of Twin Cities-area prosecutors," Clohessy said. "We hope these new resources will make a difference. We're not very confident, however."

Failure to bring criminal charges against church leaders would send a disturbing message, he added. "To victims, the message is simply, 'Sorry, your pain doesn't mean much and your elected and appointed officials have failed you.' To parents, a similar message, 'Your children's safety is something we'll talk about, but when push comes to shove, we won't really take any dramatic steps to ensure their safety,'" he said.

Choi turned aside criticism of his efforts. He said it would be wrong "to try to convict people in the media...I think this is serious stuff, and we need to be thoughtful and deliberate."

Widening scandal, another suit

More than a dozen alleged victims of clergy sex abuse have filed lawsuits in the past year, aided by a law passed in May 2013 that gives victims more time to sue.

One of the lawsuits, filed by a man who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the 1970s, has forced the release of the names of 33 accused priests in the Twin Cities archdiocese and thousands of internal church documents.

The case has also led to the depositions of Nienstedt, Flynn, former vicars general Kevin McDonough and Peter Laird, and current St. Louis, Missouri, Archbishop Robert Carlson.

Another alleged victim filed a lawsuit Wednesday demanding similar information from the Diocese of New Ulm, where Nienstedt served as bishop from 2001 to 2007.

The depositions included statements from church leaders about specific accused priests. Documents show that Nienstedt made at least one false statement under oath in his April 2 deposition.

Choi said he has read the deposition transcripts but he declined comment on them. Speaking generally, he said that it's possible to file charges against someone who commits perjury under oath in a civil case, but such prosecutions are rare.

Archdiocesan officials told MPR News earlier this year that police had not asked them to turn over all of their files on abusers, and Nienstedt told MPR News in July that he had not been interviewed by police.

Nienstedt has said that he did not break any laws in handling allegations and did not cover-up abuse.