Suit seeks to hold Vatican at fault for abuse by U.S. priests

Stephen Hoffman, 21, left, and his brothers Ben and Luke.
Stephen Hoffman, 21, left, and his brothers Ben, 25, center, and Luke, 23, right, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Holy See on Tuesday by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated 7:59 p.m. May 14 | Posted 3:19 p.m. May 13

Three brothers who were sexually abused by a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Vatican, claiming the Holy See bears responsibility because the case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican's former ambassador to the United States.

The lawsuit attempts to trace a direct line from clergy sex abuse victims to the Vatican, through Minnesota church officials. Luke, Stephen and Ben Hoffman were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, roughly between 2009 and 2012.

"I have too many nieces and nephews to let something like this happen to anybody else," Stephen Hoffman said about his decision to come forward.

Curtis Wehmeyer
Curtis Wehmeyer in a photo taken in June 2016.
Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Nienstedt and the former ambassador, Carlo Maria Vigano, have previously denied the allegations raised in the lawsuit. The Vatican's U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, had no immediate comment. In the past Lena has described sex abuse lawsuits against the Vatican as publicity stunts.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs include two other men who say they were molested by Catholic priests, one in Minnesota and one in California. Those two men sued the Vatican separately within the last year, but attorney Jeff Anderson withdrew their cases in anticipation of Tuesday's lawsuit. Anderson had also sued the Vatican on two prior occasions without success.

Anderson said he believes the new lawsuit is stronger because he's made a more complete effort to document Vatican authority over Catholic clerics and to portray the church as a commercial enterprise. The Hoffman brothers' involvement also allowed him to bring in issues surrounding Nienstedt, which he says are emblematic of how church leaders have covered up abuse.

"The body of evidence and the scope of the complaint is much broader and much more developed than the first time we litigated this," Anderson said.

Because it has the status of a foreign nation, the Vatican is generally exempt from lawsuits in the United States. Exceptions to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act include wrongful acts committed against U.S. citizens and commercial activities undertaken by foreign nations.

The new lawsuit seeks monetary damages, but the plaintiffs said truth is the goal. The lawsuit asks for court orders requiring the Vatican to turn over names of "credibly accused" priests whose cases have been referred to the Holy See, along with related records. It also seeks names of church leaders who have been implicit in covering up abuse.

Ben Hoffman said the church needs to be more transparent and "live in the truth."

"I'm still Catholic. I have a deep love for the church. I have a deep love for my faith, it means the world to me. But the Vatican -- we have to fix this," he said, his eyes watering.

Before the Hoffman brothers were abused, church officials received complaints about Wehmeyer's inappropriate sexual activities. In 2004, he was cited for loitering in a Minnesota park known as a place to meet for anonymous sex, and he lied to police about his identity, the lawsuit says.

Wehmeyer was later evaluated at a treatment center for troubled priests and diagnosed with a sexual disorder. The archbishop at the time, Harry Flynn, moved him from West St. Paul to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and assigned him to administrative duties.

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

But in 2009, about the time Wehmeyer started abusing the Hoffman brothers, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor. According to the lawsuit, another archdiocesan official cautioned Nienstedt -- then newly installed as archbishop -- about the promotion and informed him of Wehmeyer's record, to no avail.

Over the next three years, Wehmeyer abused the Hoffman brothers, who were in their mid-teens, during camping trips. After the boys' mother reported the abuse of at least two of her sons to police, Wehmeyer was arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.

The AP does not routinely name victims of sexual abuse, but the plaintiffs have chosen to speak publicly.

Wehmeyer's arrest led local prosecutors to file criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children. The charges were dropped in 2016 when the archdiocese admitted wrongdoing and agreed to meet with victims and adopt stronger measures to prevent clergy abuse.

Stephen Hoffman who was abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer as a child
Stephen Hoffman, 21, who was abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer as a child, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Holy See filed on Tuesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Wehmeyer's arrest also triggered the resignation of Nienstedt after the archdiocese retained a law firm to look into his supervision of Wehmeyer. The investigation alleged Nienstedt had sexually harassed priests and seminarians and had a "social relationship" with Wehmeyer.

Controversy surrounding Nienstedt escalated when a priest involved in the investigation wrote a memo saying that Vigano ordered church officials to end the inquiry and instructed them to destroy a letter they wrote to him objecting to his directive.

Vigano flatly denied those allegations in a statement last year. "I never told anyone that (the law firm) should stop the inquiry, and I never ordered any document be destroyed," he said. "Any statement to the contrary is false."

Nienstedt, who is not a defendant in the case, also denies the allegations. In a response to emailed questions from the AP on Tuesday, Nienstedt said his interaction with Wehmeyer was in the context of archbishop to priest.

"During my time as Archbishop, I was made aware of some challenges Wehmeyer was facing, but was not made aware that he may be inappropriately or illegally involved with minors," Nienstedt wrote. He said that as archbishop, he ensured Wehmeyer was complying with conditions placed on him, including attending counseling.

Nienstedt wrote that Wehmeyer was being supervised and doing what was asked of him, and the decision to promote him was made in consultation with others.

"I would never knowingly cover up clergy sexual abuse," Nienstedt wrote.

Nienstedt also said he's unaware of a final report that came out of the investigation into him, but he reiterated that even though the allegations are false, he directed that the investigation be carried out, as he would have done for any other priest.

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