Saturday, June 06, 2015

One Chancery, Six Charges – Twin Cities Church Hit With Criminal Counts

Two years since a storm of revelations of abuse and cover-up began bearing down on the archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, yesterday saw the tumult take yet another eruptive turn as the bankrupt Twin Cities church was institutionally charged with six "gross misdemeanors" of child endangerment stemming from its handling of a now-jailed and laicized cleric whose pattern of misconduct is alleged to have continued into 2011.

Nearly 13 years since the US bishops enacted the Dallas Charter and Norms to mandate stringent safe-environment provisions as the church's national law, the latest criminal proceeding over post-2002 lapses centers on the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, a thrice-convicted abuser ordained in 2001 and removed from ministry in mid-2012 following years of concerns expressed to archdiocesan officials.

After pleading guilty to a combined 20 abuse and child pornography counts later in 2012, Wehmeyer was dismissed from the clerical state by the Vatican earlier this year.

In a 44-page presentment that veers between graphic disclosures of Wehmeyer's conduct and a detailed timeline of the Chancery responses to alarms sounded over the priest's activity – including a 2004 incident where he solicited young men for sex in a Barnes & Noble bookstore – Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the findings amounted to "a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the archdiocese... over the course of decades."

"The archdiocese’s failures have caused great suffering by the victims and their family and betrayed our entire community," the prosecutor said, citing, "the many courageous clergy and laypeople whose legitimate concerns about Wehmeyer’s behavior were ignored or minimized to those Catholics and non-Catholics alike who were falsely led to believe that the archdiocese had effective measures in place to protect children."

Given the already-fraught situation of the archdiocese – where both Archbishop John Nienstedt and his senior auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché (Wehmeyer's pastor in the convicted cleric's first assignment), have come under significant scrutiny over their involvement in the case – a terse Chancery response came in a statement from the junior auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Cozzens.

"We deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and are grieved for all victims of sexual abuse," Cozzens said. "We will continue to cooperate with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office."

While a US bishop and clergy-personnel chief have individually been convicted for their response to cases in recent years, the device of an indictment against the juridic person of a diocesan corporation without individual charges for its past or present officials was employed by local prosecutors in a handful of Stateside locales shortly after the crisis' national eruption in 2002 and, until now, hasn't been seen since.

In the most prominent example of such a case, in late 2003 then-Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati appeared in court to enter a no contest plea to five failure-to-report counts levied against the Ohio archdiocese, which was penalized with the maximum $10,000 fine. Elsewhere, district attorneys in New Hampshire and Phoenix struck deals with their respective dioceses for their offices' enhanced oversight of personnel files in lieu of criminal proceedings.

Back to the Twin Cities, the corporate charges have served to end a tenuous calm following a series of dramatic developments born from an intense trail of reporting by Minnesota Public Radio, drawing upon an initial round of allegations made through the second half of 2013 by the archdiocese's former canonical Chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger. Among other aspects of the scene, amid a three-year state "window" law suspending the civil statute of limitations on abuse cases, the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January after agreeing to a "landmark" October settlement with victims, a Chancery-tapped task force cited the administration's failures in its response to cases, Nienstedt was investigated and subsequently cleared by civil authorities after a young man reported that he was groped by the archbishop while taking a Confirmation photo, and the embattled prelate fended off calls for his resignation in the wake of a diocese-sponsored probe by a civil law firm over alleged personal misconduct with adult males. Its findings slated to be forwarded to the apostolic nuncio in Washington on its completion, last summer the archdiocese said the latter process remained ongoing, and any word of its resolution has never emerged.

A onetime staffer in the Secretariat of State and protege of the late Cardinal Edmund Szoka, defenders of the Detroit-born Nienstedt have cited the roots of the tumult in an agenda-driven campaign to discredit the church in light of the archbishop's outspoken defense of its teachings in the public square, above all on same-sex marriage, which was legalized in Minnesota in 2013 after a strong statewide push led by the Twin Cities prelate nonetheless resulted in the defeat of a referendum which would've banned the unions in the state's constitution.

Already a prominent conservative voice as bishop of New Ulm, Nienstedt's 2007 appointment as coadjutor to Archbishop Harry Flynn was viewed from the outset as a provocative choice for a local church with a long-standing national reputation for its progressive ways. Perhaps most ironically of all, however, the recent revelations have served not just to undermine the current archbishop, but mar the legacy of his predecessor, casting a cloud over Flynn's widely well-regarded performance as chair of the USCCB's then-ad hoc committee on clergy sex-abuse during the 2002 crisis, a task which saw the now-retired prelate play a key role in organizing the Dallas meeting devoted completely to the scandals, as well as the crafting of the Charter and Norms. Even prior to that, Flynn had won a national profile as a healer from abuse scandals from the time of his first episcopal assignment, when in 1985 the Albany native was sent to Lafayette, Louisiana in the aftermath of the Gilbert Gauthe case, the first outbreak of abuse and cover-up to destabilize an American diocese and garner wide attention on the issue.

Reflecting the tensions already in evidence among the 850,000-member fold, yesterday's announcement came on the second day of an official archdiocesan novena to the Sacred Heart for the renewal of the Twin Cities church, marked by a prayer that "our clergy be granted a zeal for souls, our consecrated religious perfection in charity, and our lay faithful a growth in every virtue and spiritual gift."

While abuse isn't on the public agenda, the charges are likely to be a leading topic of private conversation among the US bishops at their June meeting next week in St Louis. The last plenary before the bench convenes in late September to be addressed by Pope Francis during his visit to the East Coast, the open sessions on Wednesday and Thursday will see a host of reports and discussion on topics ranging from the papal trip to the pontiff's impending encyclical on the care of the environment and, above all, the quadrennial revision of the bishops' Faithful Citizenship pastoral letter on Catholic teaching in political matters, which the body has released in the year before every presidential election since 1975.