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Criminal charges dropped, Twin Cities Archdiocese admits wrongdoing in abuse case

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Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Archbishop Bernard Hebda speaks during a news conference at St. Paul Cathedral in March.
Leila Navidi | Star Tribune via AP

Prosecutors dropped criminal charges Wednesday that alleged the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis turned a blind eye to repeated misconduct by a former priest, and the archdiocese publicly admitted wrongdoing for the way it handled sexual abuse allegations against the defrocked cleric.  

The admission was part of an agreement in a lawsuit that calls for Archbishop Bernard Hebda to personally participate in at least three — and likely more — restorative justice sessions with abuse victims. The archbishop took the unusual step of attending the Wednesday hearing at which the agreement was announced.

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

Ramsey County prosecutors filed civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese last year. The six gross misdemeanor child endangerment charges against the archdiocese involved Curtis Wehmeyer, who is serving prison time for molesting three brothers: two in Minnesota and a third in Wisconsin.

The civil case was settled in December under a plan that allowed for more oversight of the church. But attorneys for both sides used Wednesday's hearing on progress in the civil case to announce new steps aimed at reinforcing that agreement.

"The Archdiocese admits that it failed to adequately respond and prevent the sexual abuse" of the three victims, the archdiocese said in papers filed Wednesday. 

Curtis Wehmeyer
Curtis Wehmeyer
Wisconsin Department of Corrections

"The Archdiocese failed to keep the safety and wellbeing of these three children ahead of protecting the interests of Curtis Wehmeyer and the Archdiocese. The actions and omissions of the Archdiocese failed to prevent the abuse that resulted in the need for protection and services for these three children."  

Then-Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned from his post 10 days after the criminal charges were filed in June 2015. Hebda, who took over an archdiocese in turmoil about a year ago, apologized for its failures at a news conference later Wednesday.  

"Those children, their parents, their family, their parish and others were harmed. We are sorry. I am sorry," Hebda said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the victims' family appreciated the admission of wrongdoing. He said they supported the measures to strengthen the settlement and his decision to drop the criminal charges.  

"They were moved and satisfied that justice had been done," the prosecutor said.  

Choi also defended his decision not to file criminal charges against Nienstedt or other senior church officials for their handling of the Wehmeyer case. He said there wasn't enough evidence against any individual to get a conviction, though there was against the archdiocese. He said the protections under the settlement are stronger than anything the court could have ordered.  

Other changes announced Wednesday extend the court's oversight until February 2020. And the archdiocese named nationally recognized child welfare advocate Patty Wetterling to its Ministerial Review Board, which examines abuse claims involving priests. 

The archdiocese has created a team of law enforcement and child protection professionals to help guard children from sexual predators.

Janell Rasmussen, deputy director of the archdiocese's Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, said  the archdiocese's responsibilities for protecting children will never end.

"Today, tomorrow and every day we will ask ourselves, 'Are we doing all that we can to protect children?'" Rasmussen said.

The admission of wrongdoing has potential to hurt the church when it comes to collecting on insurance claims related to clergy sexual abuse. Much depends on specific insurance contracts and the circumstances of sex abuse cases.

"My hunch is that the insurance is not affected," said Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

The archdiocese, which is in the midst of a bankruptcy reorganization, has been fighting with insurers over their responsibility to cover sex abuse claims. Some insurers contend they should not be on the hook for abuse that the church knew or should have known about.

While the archdiocese incurred no legal penalty or punishment with its admission of wrongdoing, Reid said Choi got what the county attorney's office felt was most important: holding the church accountable.

"This was always, I think,  meant as as a form of leverage, as a form of negotiating a settlement that involved transparency, involved accountability," Reid said. "I always saw the criminal charge as a kind of club that would be  held over the head of the archdiocese until the archdiocese performed."

Had the archdiocese lost in court, it faced up to  $18,000 in fines and a gross misdemeanor conviction, along with legal costs that could have well exceeded the actual penalty.