Friday, June 5, 2015

St. Paul archdiocese charged over handling of abuse claims


ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Criminal charges were filed Friday against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for its handling of a priest who molested children, with a prosecutor saying church leaders "turned a blind eye" to problems with the priest.

Ramsey County prosecutors charged the archdiocese as a corporation with six gross misdemeanor counts alleging that it failed to protect children. No individual church leaders were charged.

The charges stem from the archdiocese's handling of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul who was eventually sent to prison for molesting two boys. Prosecutors say church leaders failed to respond to "numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct" by Wehmeyer from the time he entered seminary until he was removed from the priesthood in 2015.

"It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said. He said the archdiocese "time and time again turned a blind eye" to what was going on with Wehmeyer.

A spokesman for the archdiocese didn't immediately return a message seeking comment on the charges.

The six counts are punishable by a fine of a few thousand dollars. Choi said the charges are important in holding the archdiocese accountable.

Asked whether any individuals might be charged, Choi would only say that the county's investigation was ongoing.

Attorneys who sued the archdiocese on behalf of clergy-abuse victims have alleged that church officials waited too long between when they confronted Wehmeyer in 2012 and when they informed police, which they say gave Wehmeyer time to destroy evidence.

Wehmeyer later pleaded guilty to molesting two brothers and is serving five years in prison. Another prosecution, including an alleged teenage victim in western Wisconsin, is still pending.

The St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese has been under fire since a former church official went public in 2013, with concerns about how local church leaders handled abuse cases. The scandal generated several new reports to police.

The Ramsey County charges came after a 20-month investigation that Choi said confirmed many allegations reported by local media, but also uncovered new information.

"The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored, they cannot be dismissed and are frankly appalling," Choi said.

The archdiocese announced a settlement last fall in a lawsuit that claimed it created a public nuisance by failing to warn parishioners about an abusive priest. The settlement includes new measures to keep children safe and undisclosed financial terms.

Archbishop John Nienstedt has said the archdiocese was cooperating with law enforcement, victims and their attorneys to hold those responsible accountable and to help heal those who've been hurt.

Criminal charges against a diocese are rare. But in 2011, a grand jury indicted Bishop Robert Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse. Finn was convicted in 2012, and he resigned this past April.

The Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, settled a criminal case in 2002 just before the state attorney general was about to present the charges to a grand jury. Bishops there, as well as in Phoenix, Arizona, and Cincinnati, Ohio, struck deals in 2002 and 2003 with prosecutors to avoid charges related to their response to abuse cases.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is home to about 825,000 Catholics and encompasses nearly 190 parishes in 12 counties.


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