Survivor seeks clarity about abusive priest’s future

A brick and concrete building
The Christ Church Newman Center is seen on the north edge of St. Cloud State University campus along the Mississippi River on Tuesday in St. Cloud. Anthony Oelrich was a priest at the center before his arrest. He was released from prison last week after serving more than two years for criminal sexual conduct with an adult.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

After a St. Cloud priest was recently released from prison after serving more than two years for sexual misconduct with an adult, one of his victims says the Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud needs to do more to ensure that he will never again serve in the priesthood.

The Rev. Anthony Oelrich was released from the state prison in Lino Lakes on Oct. 17 after serving two-thirds of a 41-month sentence.

Oelrich pleaded guilty in 2019 to one felony count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for being a member of the clergy and having ongoing sexual contact with a woman who'd come to him for spiritual advice. That’s prohibited under Minnesota law, and consent is not a defense.

A mug shot of a white man
St. Cloud priest Anthony Oelrich was released from prison last week after serving more than two years for criminal sexual misconduct with an adult.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections

The 56-year-old Oelrich remains a Catholic priest, although his priestly faculties have been suspended since his 2018 arrest. That means he can't present himself as a priest, celebrate Mass publicly or wear the Roman collar.

In a statement, St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler said he continues to consider Oelrich's future ministry status. Under church law, only the pope can decide whether he should be laicized, or dismissed from the priesthood.

In the meantime, Oelrich continues to receive his priest's salary. He must pay for his own housing and other expenses. The church did not pay his legal fees during his criminal case, a diocese spokesperson said.

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One person who's been pushing the diocese for a clearer answer about Oelrich's future in the church is one of his victims, a woman named Deborah. MPR News agreed to use only use her first name because she is a survivor of sexual abuse.

In an interview at her Twin Cities home last week, Deborah said the weeks leading up to Oelrich's release have taken a toll on her health. She said she’s had trouble sleeping and suffered from migraine headaches because of the uncertainty about what the church is going to do about Oelrich.

Deborah said she was a young stay-at-home mom with five children trapped in an abusive marriage in 1993, when Oelrich manipulated her into a sexual relationship that lasted nearly a decade. She said he preyed on women like her in vulnerable situations.

“That's one of the things so I had to read a lot and understand — how it is never consensual in that situation,” she said.

According to court documents filed in Deborah's civil lawsuit against Oelrich and the St. Cloud diocese, her first husband complained to the diocese about Oelrich's inappropriate behavior toward Deborah in 1994. The complaint says church officials did not support Deborah, but sided with Oelrich and blamed her.

"I was asked questions about if I had been fantasizing about him, if I knew the meaning of seduction, if I don't know how to say no to people,” she said. “Everything was implied that I had seduced him. And yet, they never admitted any wrongdoing on his part.”

Deborah said the abuse by Oelrich continued, even after she divorced, remarried and moved to the Twin Cities. Eventually she sought support from the organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

She filed a police report in 2016, but the statute of limitations for criminal charges had expired. Deborah did provide testimony in the criminal case against Oelrich for abusing a different woman, which led to his guilty plea.

MPR News also contacted the victim at the center of the criminal case, who declined to comment for this story.

A brick office building is framed by trees in afternoon light
The St Cloud Diocese office is seen along Third Avenue South, located just blocks away from St. Cloud State University on Monday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Deborah said she met with Bishop Kettler in early June, and asked how the church would handle Oelrich once he was released from prison.

"We also told him in that meeting we're concerned about the ongoing financial support that he would be given, because that comes out of the pockets of parishioners,” she said. 

Deborah said the bishop told her he'd forwarded the investigation of Oelrich to Rome for a decision on whether the priest should be laicized.

It does bring her some comfort that Oelrich will remain under the supervision of the Minnesota Department of Corrections for 10 years.

Department spokesperson Nick Kimball said Oelrich must register as a predatory offender and follow special conditions, including refraining from employment as a clergy or minister without approval.

Deborah says she still thinks the diocese should provide more assurance that Oelrich will never again serve as a priest anywhere, in any capacity.

"Only because the law is going to be watching him and holding him accountable,” she said. “That is the only reason that the people are safe from him. The church is not providing any safety." 

Oelrich's attorney, Paul Engh, provided a statement to MPR News saying his client served his time “with dignity and remorse.”

“He is being dismissed from the priesthood, and will not be contacting any witness from his case,” Engh stated.

Attorney Michael Bryant has represented many survivors of clergy abuse, including Deborah, in civil lawsuits against the Catholic church. He said internationally, the church has made progress on preventing clergy abuse, but there are still cases where it protects predatory priests. 

Bryant said even though this case didn't involve children, Oelrich still took advantage of his authority.

"It still goes back to preying upon vulnerable individuals,” Bryant said. “And so actions by the church that don't protect vulnerable individuals seem contrary to all of their teachings."

A silhouette of a building against a purple and orange sunset
The Cathedral of Saint Mary, a prominent landmark in downtown St. Cloud, Minn., is seen at sunset on Monday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Deborah said she wants the St. Cloud bishop to be more transparent and address parishioners directly about Oelrich, as well as start a support group for abuse survivors.

"It's very anxiety-producing that my church does not handle this well, that they're not transparent, that we haven't learned with everything that's gone on,” she said.

In his statement about Oelrich's release, Kettler apologized to the victims and all those who’ve been hurt by his actions. 

“I am committed to fostering healing for those who have been wounded and doing all I can to end clergy abuse,” Kettler stated.