Archdiocese, Ramsey Co. agree to settle civil charges in priest child abuse case

Chancery building
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis chancery building sits near the foot of the Cathedral, overlooking downtown St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

Updated 4:50 p.m. | Posted 9:50 a.m.

Ramsey County prosecutors and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have agreed on a plan that would dismiss civil charges against the archdiocese tied to the clergy sex abuse case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.

The settlement deal was announced in a pretrial court hearing Friday morning on the civil case and a related criminal case the county brought against the archdiocese.

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

Under the agreement, civil charges would be stayed for three years while the church puts in place its policies and practices to protect children. The church would have to submit progress reports to the court every six months.

The civil case would be dropped after three years if the court is satisfied with the church's actions.

The goal is to create an environment where no child will again be abused, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Tom Ring said.

Criminal charges against the archdiocese tied to the Wehmeyer case remain in place. Authorities said the civil settlement does not affect the criminal charges and that case will continue.

The civil settlement is contingent on approval from a federal bankruptcy judge. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy earlier this year in response to mounting claims from clergy abuse victims.

The county in June criminally charged the archdiocese for its "role in failing to protect children and contribution to the unspeakable harm" done to three sexual abuse victims of Wehmeyer.

Prosecutors also filed a civil motion to force the archdiocese to stop the alleged illegal behavior.

The charges placed responsibility for the abuse of those children not just on Wehmeyer "but the archdiocese as well," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi told reporters as he announced the charges. The six counts qualify as gross misdemeanors and could lead to fines against the archdiocese.

Choi at the time called the archdiocese's monitoring program for abusive priests "a sham," adding, "We were falsely led to believe that the leadership structure of the archdiocese had an effective program in place" for monitoring abusive priests.

To settle the civil case, the archdiocese agreed to abide by a new accountability system on questions of clergy abuse.

Many of the policies listed in the agreement have already been in place, some for decades. Background checks, publicly releasing names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, and record keeping are just a few examples.

But Choi said the difference is his office will now be involved in enforcing those policies.

The settlement requires the archdiocese to consider recommendations from the county attorney about who should sit on a private board that advises the archbishop on abuse cases.

The archdiocese would also release the location of any priest with a substantiated claim of sex abuse and hire an ombudsman to help parishioners.

Choi on Friday praised the archdiocese for working with his office on the settlement and said it went beyond what a court could've ordered.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office will be substantially involved in monitoring the agreement and information will be shared with the public, he said, adding that if the archdiocese does not comply, the matter will come again before the court.

Wehmeyer was arrested in 2012 and pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two sons of a parish employee and possessing child pornography.

He was removed from the priesthood in March 2015 and is serving a five-year prison sentence. He's also facing prosecution in Chippewa County, Wis., for sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

The police review of the case was prompted by an MPR News report that showed several church officials did not immediately report allegations about Wehmeyer to police.

Three months later, in January 2014, Choi held a news conference to announce that no charges would be filed against any church officials for their handling of the Wehmeyer case.

MPR News obtained documents that provided further evidence of Archbishop John Nienstedt's knowledge of the Wehmeyer allegations. Those documents led Choi and police to reopen the case.

Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche resigned their posts in the weeks following the civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese in the Wehmeyer case.

Choi said it will be hard under the new agreement for anyone to conceal clergy sex abuse.

The old archdiocese policies were just promises made to the public and did not have the law enforcement oversight the new deal requires, he added.

Archdiocese officials agreed the new structure would better protect children.

"We are doing it because it's the right thing," said Tim O'Malley, the archdiocese director of ministerial standards and safe environment. "We want the opportunity to prove ourselves, and we want to keep kids safe."

Some advocates of clergy abuse victims remain skeptical.

The agreement brought nothing new to the tablem said Frank Meuers, who leads the Minnesota chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused.

"I don't feel safer. I'm not sure anybody does," Meuers said. "I don't think there is anything there that would indicate that somehow this is way different or brand new or suddenly everybody can breathe easy that children are safe now at last. I just don't see those kinds of things."

The archdiocese is expected to seek approval from the bankruptcy court to settle the civil case. It would then come back to the district court in February for final approval.

In a statement after the civil settlement plan was announced, archdiocese officials said the legal proceeding had produced positive outcomes but that nothing could take away the pain of victims.

Archdiocese Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens told reporters: "There will never come a day when we stand before you and our Catholic faithful and say we're done."