Ex-archdiocesan official contradicts Nienstedt's sworn testimony over abuse claim

Ex-archdiocesan official contradicts Nienstedt's sworn testimony over abuse claim

By Madeleine Baran

May 28, 2014

A former top official of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis contradicted Archbishop John Nienstedt's account of how top officials responded to a sexual abuse claim against a Catholic priest, according to sworn testimony made public today.

The Rev. Peter Laird described the flurry of decisions made in June 2012 when the chancery learned that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer had been accused of sexually abusing a child. Laird said he kept Nienstedt informed of the situation as it unfolded, according to a transcript of his May 12, 2014 deposition released by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson. Nienstedt has said under oath that he did not talk to Laird.

The testimony of Laird and other archdiocesan officials was provided as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who says he was sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the mid-1970s. The man alleges the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance by keeping information on accused priests secret. The man's attorneys, Anderson and Mike Finnegan, argued that the deposition could provide evidence of a pattern of deception by the archdiocese.

Laird's explanation for the decisions on Wehmeyer also contradicts the testimony of two other officials.

Taken together, the sworn statements show top leaders unable to offer a consistent explanation of how they handled a case that has attracted intense public scrutiny, criminal investigations and a lawsuit. The statements also make clear that Nienstedt did not attend critical meetings on how to handle the situation.

Laird resigned as vicar general on Oct. 3, 2013. In his deposition, he said he also advised Nienstedt to resign "for the same reason that I resigned, which is I think leaders have a responsibility to be accountable for decisions whenever they take place in an organization and to signal trust and that the most important thing is... that the archdiocese doesn't have anything to hide, and let transparency work its course."

Nienstedt did not have a "verbal response" to the suggestion, Laird said.

Despite his resignation, Laird said he did not err in his handling of abuse cases. "I was confident of the work that I did. I think I gave good advice and we took great steps over the years that I was in my position. But I thought it was essential to signal our accountability and to let a process of fact-finding go forward," he said.

Jennifer Haselberger, the former church lawyer turned whistleblower, has told MPR News that Laird repeatedly rejected her efforts to improve how the church handled sexual abuse cases. She said that Laird repeatedly told her that the church needed to look forward, not backward.

St. Paul police are investigating whether anyone at the archdiocese broke a state law that requires priests to report suspected child sexual abuse within 24 hours unless they learned of the allegations in a confessional.

Last year, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith held a news conference to urge archdiocesan officials and anyone else with information on clergy sexual abuse cases to contact police.

Laird said he has not contacted police. When asked why in his deposition, he said, "I'm at liberty and here in the Twin Cities. People know, so if they had contacted me and thought my contact would be helpful, I would certainly speak to the police."

St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said he was not able to immediately confirm that police officers have not contacted Laird.

St. Paul police have sent all clergy sexual abuse cases to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office for review, Padilla said.

"We will allow the Ramsey County Attorney's Office to determine what, if any, laws may have been broken. If they need further information, we will work with them to supply it."

Police had been investigating several cases, including the Wehmeyer incident, the claim by a priest that Nienstedt inappropriately touched a boy in 2009 and abuse allegations against other priests. Nienstedt has denied any inappropriate contact with the boy.

The timeline of the Wehmeyer allegations continues to be in dispute.

Police reports show the mother of the victims first reported the allegations to the Rev. John Paul Erickson no later than June 14, 2012 but Erickson did not report it to police.

The first indication that it was reported to police was on June 20 when a deacon emailed a St. Paul Police commander. The message read: "...The person we talked about will be relieved of duties tomorrow."

The following morning the deacon and the Rev. Kevin McDonough confronted Wehmeyer at the parish and ordered him to leave. A police officer arrived a short time later and attempted to interview Wehmeyer but he refused.

Wehmeyer was arrested the next day and eventually pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.

In late January, MPR News reported that Nienstedt had signed a document saying that the archdiocese knew of the allegations on June 18. St. Paul Police reopened the investigation shortly after the report.

In his deposition, Laird said he immediately told Nienstedt of the allegation of child sexual abuse when he learned of it on June 20, 2012 - before he knew which priest had been accused. He said he told Nienstedt "that we need to clarify our ability to report it."

Laird said Nienstedt replied, "Okay."

He said he told Nienstedt the name of the priest later that day and Nienstedt replied, "I hope it's not true."

Nienstedt has testified under oath that he did not talk to Laird that day and that he learned of the claims on June 22 from the archdiocese's attorney.

That attorney contradicted Nienstedt's testimony in his own sworn statement and also refuted the timeline of McDonough.

"I know Father McDonough was wrong in his deposition about the chronology and I believe the archbishop is wrong about the chronology," attorney Andrew Eisenzimmer testified. "I will tell you that I am certain of the chronology." 

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  • commented 2014-05-29 15:10:49 -0500
    It’s “mind-boggling”. The extent to which the catholic heirarchy and catholic church employees have resorted to deny, and thus abet the peodophile activities of catholic clergy, is NEARLY enough, to confound even the best attorneys and to do so, in one of the most “advanced” and “civilized” countries in the world (the USA). Thank God, for the persistence of Jeff Anderson, Mike Finnegan, and Pam Spees and others of CCR, and the leaders of SNAP! Thank you, thank you. Please keep up the hard work!!!
  • commented 2014-05-29 12:06:32 -0500
    Partners in crime rarely stick together; they inevitably turn on each other when they’re up against it. This is the toxic environment the Vatican has effectively created in the church by commanding everyone to straight–arm public authorities.