Ramsey County Attorney: 7 of 10 clergy abuse cases now closed

John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi at a September press conference.
Matt Sepic / MPR News file

Updated 9:45 a.m.

After nearly a year of investigation into clergy misconduct in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, prosecutors say they still aren't ready to file any criminal charges against priests or church officials.

Seven of 10 criminal cases tied to clergy sex abuse and investigated by the St. Paul Police are now closed, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Friday.

Four cases of alleged priest misconduct were not formally presented by police for charging while three were declined for prosecution based on the statute of limitations, Choi said.

Investigations, he added, continue on the ones that are open, including a case involving Curtis Wehmeyer, who was a priest at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul, and another tied to Archbishop John Nienstedt. (Choi's office has said previously there's insufficient evidence to charge Nienstedt).

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

Choi said the decisions not to charge those cases, reached earlier this month, represent only an initial phase of work by his office.

But he defended the decisions authorities have made so far, including the decision not to present the cases to a Ramsey County grand jury and the decision not to seek any search warrants that would open church archives — legal tools that authorities have used in other criminal matters, including high profile and controversial cases.

"The proceedings within a grand jury are secret. No one can talk about it. And as painful as it might be, you cannot release that information to the public. And so how is there accountability to the public?" Choi asked, when questioned about the course of the investigation in his office.

Listen to the full Ramsey County Attorney's Office press conference:

He also said prosecutors and investigators didn't feel the need so far to seek warrants to search church property or records.

"The information, the evidence we have gathered is voluminous. We're talking about over 95,000 documents that we have ... and about 15,000 pages of non-electronic information," Choi said. "We have a lot of information already... and we think that information that we have is enough for right now."

The decision drew scorn from St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has been suing the Catholic Church for decades for failure to stop or turn in abusive priests.

"There is no good reason, in our view, for not using the law enforcement tools they have available to them. And that is the execution of search warrants, none of which has been done," Anderson said. "Every file that has been gotten has been gotten by us under court order and turned over by us to them. And not one search warrant has been executed, even though we asked them to do it in September of last year."

Choi disputed that characterization, saying that investigators have independently gathered information about the allegations against the Archdiocese and its clergy.

He also said he doesn't believe police and prosecutors have questioned church officials directly about how they've handled abusive priests and whether the archdiocese failed to report child abuse it was required by law to report.

"That raises, again, serious question about the rigor and vigor that's being devoted to this, available only to law enforcement and not to us," Anderson said.

Choi defended the work of his office, saying it had brought in additional legal help and had moved in March into a "second phase" of investigation into church wrongdoing.

"I believe we've finished maybe the third inning and we're somewhere in the fourth inning in terms of what I see in terms of what I see we have to do and the work that is ahead of us," he said.

There were some new details of alleged improprieties by Christian Brothers, priests and a deacon in the files released by the Ramsey County attorney and St. Paul police today.

One allegedly happened in 1976 or 1977 at the YMCA in St. Paul on University Avenue, involving an adult male and a suspect who admitted to inappropriate behavior, but didn't offer police any details when he was interviewed. He is on the list of "credibly accused" clergy kept by the church. That case was declined for prosecution because it was so old.

Another case involved a 17-year-old from St. Mary's Church in St. Paul, touched inappropriately following a confession at a church retreat in 1981. There wasn't any indication police positively identified the offender in that case, but it, too was declined because of the passage of time since the alleged incident.

A third case involved a 12-year-old boy and student at the Blessed Sacrament school, allegedly groped by an ordained deacon in 1984 after being hired to do some yard work. Police interviewed the suspect, who denied wrongdoing, and that case was also found to be outside the statute of limitations.

Four cases were listed as closed by police, without being presented for formal prosecution.

One involved a pair of Christian Brothers at Cretin High School in 1960 or 1961. One of the men allegedly attempted to reach into a freshman's pants in a school classroom. The other alleged perpetrator tried to engage the boy in a detailed conversation about masturbation. One of the alleged suspects, identified as Brother I. Anthony, died in 1967. The other, Brother K. Wilford, died in 1975.

A second involved a woman who was 13 years old and a member of St. Patrick's Church in St. Paul. She told police her family hosted a priest visiting from Africa in 1972, and that the man, identified as Michael O'Brien, raped her when her parents were not home. Neither police nor attorneys representing the woman in a civil suit were able to locate or positively identify O'Brien, and the case was closed.

In a third case, police contacted another woman who had written a letter claiming to have been sexually assaulted. But she told investigators that she had been "mystically" assaulted, and didn't offer a description of a physical assault.

A fourth case involved a St. Cloud prison inmate who said he'd been raped by a priest at the Cathedral of St. Paul in 1990, when he was a boy. When interviewed, however, he couldn't name his alleged attacker or identify him among photos offered by investigators.

Choi said he couldn't reveal any new details about three other cases that remain under investigation, although he said two of them have already been publicly disclosed.

One was an allegation that Archbishop John Neinstedt had inappropriately touched a boy following a confirmation ceremony in 2009.

There are no charges in that case, but "there are aspects to that case that we're still pursuing," Choi said. "That will remain open."

The second case still under investigation involves allegations that the church knew that Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul, was abusing two boys, but didn't report it properly to police, as required by law.

Choi's office declined to charge church officials for that alleged crime in January, but Choi said "some additional information came to light, and there's some other issues we're following up on. So with respect to that case, that case was reopened and is still under investigation."

The other matter still under investigation is also an old case, but Choi said that it involved a principle known as "tolling" that could extend the statute of limitations in certain circumstances.

There is also a case under review in the Ramsey County attorney's office that is outside of St. Paul, Choi said.

Choi said state law limiting prosecution for old crimes was a deciding factor in much of what his office could pursue, and that state law had improved in the decades since some of the crimes. Choi said the law now starts a three-year clock ticking from the date of a report of a crime to police, rather than from the date of the alleged offense.

But he said he thought the statute of limitations could be improved regarding the state's so-called "mandatory reporting" law for people who find out about crimes against children.

He said it made for a "perverse incentive to wait it out," and keep crimes secret.

Police files on archdiocese investigations

Public records on four cases investigated by St. Paul police that were not presented for criminal charges.

Public records on three cases Ramsey County authorities declined to prosecute: Case 1, Case 2, Case 3

Correction: The original version of this story did not include a case under review by the Ramsey County attorney's office, but not under the jurisdiction of the St. Paul Police.