Panel finds 'confusing and inadequate' archdiocese system for sex abuse protections

By Madeleine Baran

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poor oversight and flawed policies are among the serious shortcomings inside the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that opened the door "for some priests to harm children," a panel ordered by the archbishop concluded Monday.

"Behavioral warning signs were minimized or inappropriately rationalized," the panel said, adding the archdiocese also has a "confusing and inadequate" system to report complaints of sexual abuse of children.

The report by the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force calls for criminal background checks of priests at least every six years and an anonymous hotline for complaints. The hotline would forward allegations of child sexual abuse to the head of the archdiocese's child safety programs.

The task force did not criticize anyone by name or hold any church official responsible for the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It did not recommend any punishment for bishops or other senior officials who covered up abuse allegations. And, although it called for transparency, it urged that some information on abusive priests be kept private.

The report provides a list of 32 people interviewed by the task force, including Archbishop John Nienstedt and former archbishop Harry Flynn. The task force tried to interview Nienstedt's former deputy, but the archdiocese wrongly claimed it didn't know how to locate him, the report said. No victims of clergy sexual abuse or their family members are included on the list.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the report on Monday, saying that the task force simply stated the obvious "without naming those who ignored, hid, minimized or enabled heinous crimes against children."

Claiming that "'mistakes' have been made" and that "minor 'tweaks' in job titles and church policies will make abuse by clergy and cover ups by bishops a problem in the past" is "silly and deceptive," said SNAP outreach director Barbara Dorris. Nowhere in the report, she added, "does it say call police or law enforcement."

Task force members and a spokesman for the archdiocese declined to comment. Nienstedt has declined all interview requests since last fall. In a statement released by the archdiocese Monday, Nienstedt thanked the task force members and vowed to adopt the recommendations. The report, he said, "will guide us in fulfilling our important goals which I have stated before and repeat now: the protection of children, the healing of victims, and the restoration of trust of the faithful and of our clergy who are serving our communities with honor."

Nienstedt called for the task force in October after an MPR News investigation found the archbishop failed to report alleged child pornography to police and appointed an admitted sex addict, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, as pastor of two parishes. Wehmeyer is in prison for sexually abusing two sons of a parish employee and possessing child pornography. Many of the revelations in the MPR News reports came from Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese's former chancellor for canonical affairs who resigned in protest last year.

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