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Cover-up of clergy sex abuse goes back six decades

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Efforts by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to cover up clergy sex abuse stretch back to at least the 1950s — a decade earlier than previously revealed, according to documents released today by victims' attorneys.

The archdiocese file on the Rev. Louis Heitzer shows that bishops used now-familiar strategies to protect Heitzer from prosecution nearly six decades ago. During the 1950s and 60s, four bishops failed to notify police of allegations that Heitzer sexually abused several boys. Instead, the archbishops transferred Heitzer to 14 parishes over his 27-year career.

The 152 pages, released as part of a clergy sex abuse lawsuit that accuses the archdiocese of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusers private, raise questions about how long Catholic leaders in the Twin Cities have covered up abuse.

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

Memos and letters show a pattern of secrecy by Archbishop John Murray, who served as the third archbishop of St. Paul from 1931 to 1956, Archbishop William Brady, who served from 1956 to 1961, Archbishop Leo Binz, who served from 1961 to 1975, and Coadjutor Archbishop Leo Byrne, who served from 1967 to 1974.

The previously confidential documents reveal a world in which church leaders protected priests who sexually abused children and downplayed complaints from parents and their children, while victims suffered in silence without the aid of support groups or therapy.

Heitzer, a German immigrant who died in 1969, spent less than a year at most parishes before bishops quietly sent him elsewhere. In a 2002 letter, then-vicar general Kevin McDonough described Heitzer as "perhaps the most abusive priest ever to be a part of this Archdiocese. I now believe that he abused boys every place he went."

In December 2013, Archbishop John Nienstedt included Heitzer on a court-ordered list of priests "credibly accused" of sexually abusing children. Nienstedt claimed that Heitzer was "permanently removed from ministry" in 1969. The documents released today show that the church never removed Heitzer from ministry for more than a few weeks. In the months leading up to his death in 1969, Heitzer had been working as a nursing home chaplain in Ivanhoe, Minn.

In a statement released Tuesday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens acknowledged that the archdiocese failed to include Heitzer's complete list of parish assignments when it posted the information online last year. The original posting, which was altered in the past few hours, said that Heitzer's last assignment was in 1967. The revised list includes three additional assignments from 1967 to 1969 but still claims that Heitzer was "permanently removed" from ministry in 1969.

  Interim Archdiocese communications director Anne Steffens said in an email that the archdiocese will change how it describes the status of priests listed on its website.

"When we began releasing these names on our website last year, we noticed people wanted to know the status of the offending priest, so we came up with three categories: in ministry, temporarily removed from ministry, and permanently removed from ministry. Those were the categories we used as part of our template for the website," she said. "We're going to go back and change the template to make it more clear."

  Heitzer's file includes typewritten documents and handwritten notes from church leaders that rely on euphemisms and vague phrases to refer to the priest's alleged sexual assault of children. "Information has come to me concerning a repetition of your conduct with boys that was the occasion of your transfer from other parishes on several instances," then-archbishop Murray wrote in a letter to Heitzer on Sept. 27, 1955. Other documents refer to Heitzer's abuse as "the problem" or "circumstances."

Read the file:

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1301222-heitzer-file.html​

Heitzer preferred to be assigned to rural parishes, where he could lure farm boys with promises of candy and trips to movie theaters in the Twin Cities and popular fishing sites, according to the documents. Heitzer drove the boys home after sunset on "deserted back roads" where he could reach over and sexually assault boys while driving, the documents said.

One man, who served as an altar boy at St. Scholastica Church in Heidelberg, Minn., in the late 1950s and early 1960s, later recounted in a 2004 email to archdiocesan officials how Heitzer "would show up unannounced and ask my folks if he could take me fishing."

"It started out with him pulling me next to him on the car seat (he drove an older 1950's Mercury) and then putting his arm around me and fondling/squeezing my nipples," the man wrote. "That bothered me but this, like all subsequent abused, I accepted because he was a priest and I felt I couldn't challenge him on this activity."

The man, whose name has been redacted, told the archdiocese that because of the abuse he had never married, had never been "intimate with a woman, and can count the number of friends I have on one hand. I CANNOT GET CLOSE TO PEOPLE regardless of how hard I try because closeness conjures up images of these horrific incidents from my youth."

According to the archdiocese, from 1942 to 1967, Heitzer served in 14 parishes. They include: Most Holy Trinity in Winstedt, St. Andrew in Fairfax, Assumption in St. Paul, Holy Redeemer in Marshall, St. Mary in Sleepy Eye, St. Joseph in Waconia, St. Aloysius in Olivia, Sacred Heart in Franklin, St. Joseph in Rosen, St. Michael in Gaylord, St. Luke in Clearwater, St. Scholastic in Heidelberg, St. Richard in Richfield and St. Peter in Forest Lake.

"Circumstances have arisen"

Documents indicate that archdiocese officials knew about abuse complaints against Heitzer since at least 1955.

"Circumstances have arisen at Rosen of which you have more detailed knowledge than I possess that make it advisable for you to enter another field of service," Murray wrote Heitzer on Jan. 31, 1955. "I hereby appoint you Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in Gaylord with the Mission of Saint Francis de Sales at Winthrop."

Eight months later, the archbishop wrote to Heitzer, asking him to reflect on his continued contact with boys.

"Information has come to me concerning a repetition of your conduct with boys that was the occasion of your transfer from other parishes on several instances," Murray wrote. "If you have found from experience that it is not within your power to exercise essential self-control it is advisable that you be relieved of any further pastoral responsibility and allowed to have recourse to institutional treatment in the hope of finding a remedy.

"When you have reflected fully on all the circumstances of your problem, let me know whether you desire to seek some field of activity and specify what you what it should be. Trusting that God will help you to make a decision of great importance to yourself and to others."

The complaints continued and less than a year later, Heitzer received another letter from the archbishop.

"Again circumstances have arisen with which you are acquainted that oblige me to provide another field for your activities, effective August 8," Murray wrote. "I hereby appoint you Pastor of the Church of Saint Luke in Clearwater made vacant by the recent death of its pastor...Trusting that the future may be a time of greater achievement for you."

By July 1957, Heitzer became a problem for a new archbishop.

Parishioners at St. Luke were threatening lawsuits against the priest. "It does seem to me that in view of the past history of your problems, you would at once do whatever may be necessary to clear yourself of the danger that is presented," then-archbishop Brady wrote in a letter to Heitzer.

The archbishop told Heitzer that any lawsuits would force him "to suspend your faculties and your work here as a priest will be at an end."

"I had the distressing experience of having six couples from the Heidelberg parish come to tell of the pastor there and his indecent actions with their boys...I asked them to pray for him."

No records exist of any lawsuits at the time, and Heitzer continued to work as a priest. More parents complained, and archbishops kept transferring Heitzer to different parishes.

In August 1966, Monsignor Cyril Popelka of St. Wenceslaus Church in New Prague notified then-archbishop Binz about Heitzer's abuse.

"Last Wednesday I had the distressing experience of having six couples from the Heidelberg parish come to tell of the pastor there and his indecent actions with their boys," Popelka wrote. "All are willing to do anything to bring the situation to an end. I asked them to pray for him."

Binz sent Chancellor Terrance Berntson to interview the families. Berntson summarized the complaints in a 1966 memo titled, "Complaints of immorality against Fr. Louis Heitzer." Several parents told him that their sons didn't want to talk about what happened.

One couple told Berntson that Heitzer had gone swimming with their son three weeks earlier and, "While in the water, Heitzer said, 'I'll just take off your swimming trunks.' In answer the boy said that he was cold and ran out of the water. Then the boy told his parents that Heitzer used the foulest language, and swore. Heitzer returned the boy home and asked him to say nothing."

The boy told his parents that he had seen Heitzer take off other boys' pants in his car, the report said.

"This couple further asserted that generally the children have become frightened," Berntson wrote. "Even the parents of other boys fear for their lives."

Berntson said he had "no reason to suspect that these people are not telling the truth." He continued, "Almost universally the people wanted to know if there was a cure for this type of thing. None of them displayed a knowledge of the psychological aspects of the problem. They, in their simplistic approach to life, could not understand why Father had been doing these things. For this reason they are a freightened (sic) people and they fear very much that if Heitzer discovers that they have denounced him, he will become violent and actually hurt someone...They made no demand that Father be removed, only that he be cured."

In response, Binz sent the priest to nearby St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis for psychological treatment. A doctor who treated Heitzer at the hospital told church officials in 1966, "It is my psychiatric opinion that Father Heitzer can be reassigned to duties as a priest with perfect safety at this time." The priest, he said, showed "no signs of severe sexual maladjustment."

The archbishop responded by assigning Heitzer to serve as an assistant pastor at St. Richard Catholic Church in Richfield. He told the parish's main pastor, the Rev. Joseph Bender, that Heitzer's new assignment would not be published in the archdiocese's newspaper.

Binz warned the pastor that Heitzer should not "be given any responsibility at all in the school. Also on visiting hospitals, nursing homes etc., he must keep away from the rooms of young boys. You would do well, I believe, to repeat to him that you have been informed of these limitations which I have placed on his work and make it your own directive as well."

Documents show that Heitzer did not want to remain in Twin Cities-area parishes and longed to return to the rural areas where he had allegedly committed many of his acts of abuse. Heitzer's doctor backed Heitzer's request in a 1966 letter to Binz, the archbishop.

Binz struggled with the decision. In a letter to Heitzer's doctor, Binz said the priest "has been moved about much in the past and there are not many possible places left, if any, to which he can be sent. The matter is an important one, I am satisfied, because any relapse...could mean his permanent shelving." 

The archbishop contemplated sending Heitzer to another diocese or to a clergy retreat center. Instead, he assigned Heitzer to a parish in Forest Lake.

Heitzer was grateful for the assignment. "In regard to my personal problem I have had and which caused you great concern, may I state, that I assure you, with the grace of God, nothing like that will ever happen again," Heitzer wrote in a Jan. 27, 1966 letter to Binz. "I want to thank you for the considerations you have given me, and sincerely trust that I can restore your confidence in me." 

Binz suggested that Heitzer not tell parishioners the reason for his abrupt arrival at yet another parish. "You will prefer, I believe, to let it be known that you have been ill and are recuperating. I shall not make any announcement of your transfer in The Catholic Bulletin," Binz wrote to Heitzer in a Feb. 2, 1967 letter.

That assignment ended when a priest reported concerns to the archdiocese. The archbishop responded by sending Heitzer to Our Lady of the Snow, a clergy retreat house in Nevis, Minn., run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a group that provided psychological treatment in several states for priests who sexually assaulted children.

Berntson, the chancellor, sent the retreat center a list of Heitzer's assignments and added, "His particular problem has received some notice in the majority of his later assignments."

Heitzer resisted treatment. "It would seem he finds it difficult to admit to himself he has done anything seriously wrong," the Rev. D.W. Kratz, a priest at the center, wrote in a letter to Berntson. "Any effort to talk has only led to his side-stepping the issue."

In a separate letter, another retreat center priest, the Rev. Joseph McNamara, warned, "My only fear is that he has not really 'come to grips' with his problem and has let it go underground." And yet the center allowed Heitzer to preside over weekend Masses at nearby parishes.

Heitzer wasn't the only abuser to visit the center. A few months after he left, the Rev. James Porter, who would become among the nation's well-known  abusive priests, arrived for treatment. In 1969, Heitzer returned to ministry, as a chaplain at a nursing home in New Ulm. A few months later, he suffered a heart attack and died.

Despite the lengthy record of abuse, the Twin Cities archdiocese provided Heitzer with an elaborate funeral Mass led by Archbishop Byrne. Seven other priests assisted in the Mass as a sign of respect for their departed colleague.