Files: Duluth diocese wanted to give abusive priests 2nd chance

For the first time, attorneys involved in sexual abuse cases against priests have released internal documents from the Diocese of Duluth.

The documents were exhibits in a recent civil lawsuit against the diocese in which a jury awarded nearly $8.2 million to a survivor of clergy sex abuse. They pertain to four priests who served in the Duluth diocese in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. All four have since died.

Attorney Michael Finnegan, who represents several plaintiffs in clergy sexual abuse cases, said they appear to show that the Duluth diocese was willing to give a second chance to clergy who had been sent to facilities that treat priests accused of sexual abuse.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

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

"These documents alarm us," Finnegan told reporters in Duluth, "and make us very, very concerned that there are a number of survivors in this community here, and in the communities of the Diocese of Duluth, that were hurt by these perpetrators."

In one instance, a letter from Duluth Bishop Francis Schenk in July 1960 shows the diocese was willing to accept a priest named Charles Gormly after he spent time at Via Coeli in New Mexico. That facility, now known as The Servants of Paraclete, treated priests accused of sexual abuse. "I would like to give him one more chance," Schenk wrote.

Less than a year later, documents show, the bishop asked Gormly to report to a Milwaukee hospital for psychiatric care for a "dual problem: one is that of alcoholism and the other is a sex problem which prompts him to molest small girls."

Gormly is the subject of a lawsuit filed in May 2015, in which Quin Buchtel accused him of sexually abusing her during his tenure at St. Francis of Assisi in Brainerd, Minn. Buchtel said the abuse took place from about 1960 to 1961, when she was 12 to 13 years old.

The lawsuit filed in St. Louis County accuses the Duluth diocese of negligence and creating a public nuisance by not warning the public about Gormly and other priests accused of abusing children.

In another letter, from 1966, Schenk writes to other bishops, asking them to accept the service of the Rev. Bernard Bissonnette, who had received treatment at Via Coeli in New Mexico and a branch facility in Nevis, Minn.

"From time to time I have given guest priests of these two institutions a chance to rehabilitate themselves in the Diocese of Duluth," wrote Schenk. "Unfortunately, all of these former ventures turned out quite miserably."

The other documents involve the Rev. Gregory Manning, who served in Duluth in the late 1950s, and the Rev. Alfred Longley, who served in the early 1970s.

The Duluth diocese did not respond to a request for comment.

These are the first documents to be made public from the Duluth diocese. They represent a portion of the diocese's files on four priests, Finnegan said. Two of those priests are not included on the list the diocese released in 2013 of 31 priests credibly abused of child sexual abuse.

There are at least five current lawsuits filed against the Duluth diocese, in which Finnegan is seeking the release of thousands of documents on all priests accused of child sexual abuse.

That step is important because it can help survivors realize they weren't the only people victimized by a certain priest, said Verne Wagner, regional director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Because a victim blames themselves so many times that they must have done something to get that priest to molest them," he said. "And that's why it's so important to get this information out."

Minnesota's Child Victims Act, passed in 2013, opened a three-year window to file claims for older incidents of abuse. That window closes on May 25, 2016.

"You can get help, but you need to come forward soon," said Finnegan. "Time is running out."