Archdiocese settles civil abuse case with child-protection action plan

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office entered into a settlement agreement Dec. 18 on a civil petition regarding abuse that the county filed against the archdiocese in June.

Coadjutor Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of Newark, N.J., who also is apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, looks over paperwork Nov. 16 in Baltimore. It was the opening day of the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS photo | Bob Roller)

Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, called the settlement “the latest and most public indicator that this archdiocese has earnestly embarked on a journey of self-reflection, evaluation and action.”

“If there were any doubts about the archdiocese’s pledge to keeping kids safe, the provisions announced today, going beyond what the law would require, should help put those doubts to rest,” he said at a news conference.

The 24-page agreement outlines child protection measures the archdiocese has already implemented or has promised to implement, and Ramsey County’s oversight of those measures for three years.

Among them are continuing the role of the archdiocese’s newly established Ministerial Review Board in examining claims of clergy sexual abuse, creating a comprehensive set of policy documents readily available online, and an increased level of involvement from lay people at the parish, seminary and school levels.

In the settlement, the archdiocese also agreed to host a conference for restorative justice and reconciliation for clergy sexual abuse victims within 18 months of confirmation of a plan for Reorganization with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The archdiocese entered Chapter 11 reorganization last January in response to mounting claims of sexual abuse of minors following a three-year lifting of Minnesota’s statute of limitations on decades-old cases. As of August, more than 400 claims of sexual abuse had been filed against the archdiocese. The claims involved a fraction of priests who have served in the archdiocese, but they have had a great and far-reaching impact on the local church.

The Dec. 18 settlement agreement is binding pending the bankruptcy court’s approval.

The county filed the civil petition and criminal charges against the archdiocese June 5 alleging the archdiocese failed to protect children in the case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who plead guilty in 2013 of sexually abusing two boys at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul in 2010. The criminal charges involving the archdiocese are a separate case.

Attorneys representing the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and the archdiocese announced the settlement in a 9 a.m. court hearing. Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner called the settlement “a significant effort to protect not only children but citizens” and thanked the attorneys for their work in reaching an agreement.

During a press conference following the court hearing, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi characterized the settlement as “unprecedented” and “landmark.”

“As a commitment to meaningful change, the archdiocese has agreed to be subject to the oversight of our office … for three years as they continue to transform their organizational culture and practices with respect to clergy sexual abuse,” he said.

He said the archdiocese has agreed to implement “important compliance standards that incorporate best practices from across the country with new standards that do not exist anywhere else.” He expects the new standards to “set forth a clear standard of response” for archdiocesan and parish staff members, volunteers and clergy in regards to allegations of child sexual abuse.

“It is my expectation that never again will the facts of this case be repeated, and the protection of children will forever be paramount within this archdiocese,” he said.

Several of the measures in the agreement are those first established in the archdiocese’s October 2014 settlement with a child sexual abuse victim known as Doe 1, as well as the recommendations of the independent Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force the archdiocese commissioned in 2013.

“These provisions will all now be subject to verification, oversight and enforcement,” Choi said.

He emphasized that the agreement contains measures that go beyond what a judge could have ordered the archdiocese to do had the case gone to litigation.

“Credit should be given to the archdiocese for agreeing to do these things,” he said. “They’re doing these things — and we have insisted upon these things — because we’ve started to focus on something we could agree on, and that was the protection of children going forward.”

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office plans to be “substantially involved” in two independent audits to ensure compliance with the agreement’s provisions, Choi said. The results will be made public.

Archbishop Hebda, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator since the June 15 resignations of Archbishop John C. Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piche, spoke at a separate news conference at the archdiocese’s Hayden Center.

Accompanying him Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens; Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment; and representatives of the archdiocese’s board of directors, Archdiocesan Finance Council, Ministerial Review Board and College of Consultors.

At the news conference, Bishop Cozzens described the agreement as the fulfillment of the promise he and O’Malley made in front of the chancery June 5: to work with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and strengthen the archdiocese’s child-protection systems.

“There will never come a day when we stand before you and the Catholic faithful and say ‘That’s it. We’re done,'” Bishop Cozzens said. “Our commitment to protecting children and families will never end.”

“This agreement was not forged to simply resolve a civil case,” O’Malley said. He said the archdiocese agreed to do more than would have been required by litigation “because we want to — because it’s the right thing to do and we want the opportunity to prove ourselves.”

“This is about protecting kids,” he added. “I have yet to talk with a survivor who didn’t say — ‘You know what I want most? To know that what happened to me won’t happen to another kid.’ That’s our motivation, too.”

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.