MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota prosecutors have taken legal action against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accusing church leaders of failing to protect children from an abusive priest. The case includes criminal charges as well as a civil petition that asks the court to order the archdiocese to restrain from its alleged behavior. Some questions and answers about the case:
CRIMINAL VS. CIVIL: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The criminal charges and civil petition both stem from church leaders’ alleged failure to protect children from Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who remained in ministry for years despite signs that he was a risk. Wehmeyer was ultimately convicted of molesting two boys and faces prosecution in Wisconsin for molesting a third.
The criminal case charges the archdiocese with six gross misdemeanor counts. The archdiocese could face a maximum of $18,000 in fines if convicted.
While the criminal charges hold the archdiocese accountable for past crimes, the civil petition seeks “legal remedies to prevent the archdiocese from allowing this behavior to ever happen again,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said earlier this month. It seeks no monetary damages. In the petition, prosecutors are asking the court to restrain the archdiocese from repeating the behavior, require it to correct and eliminate conditions that allowed the cover-up and order any other remedies the court deems appropriate.
Bishop Andrew Cozzens said on June 5 that the archdiocese will cooperate with prosecutors.
“We all share the same goal: To provide safe environments for all children in our churches and in our communities,” he said.
WOULD COURTS HAVE OVERSIGHT OF THE CHURCH?
Under church law, the bishop has ultimate supervision of his priests and priests take vows to obey. If the state intrudes on that relationship, the church can claim it infringes on religious liberty, said Charles Reid Jr., a professor of canon law at St. Thomas University.
Reid said Ramsey County’s civil petition is carefully worded to avoid that. He said the document seeks assurances that the archdiocese is doing what it promised to do and following its own charters to protect children.
“It’s asking the court to see to it that these rules are followed,” Reid said. He said the archdiocese is being told: “Play by your rules. … We’re not saying we want you to adopt new rules. We want you to follow the ones you have.”
Reid said if the court grants the petition and the archdiocese doesn’t abide by its own rules, the church could be held in contempt or fined.
HAS THIS BEEN DONE BEFORE?
Not exactly, but there have been similar cases where some amount of oversight was part of a settlement.
In 2002, for example, the Diocese of Manchester reached an agreement with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office that included an annual audit to keep the diocese accountable. In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to charge the diocese or any individuals for the way they handled allegations of past abuse. The audits were delayed by a few years as both sides wrangled over their scope.
WILL CHURCH LEADERS BE CHARGED?
That’s unknown. While prosecutors have detailed many instances in which specific church leaders failed to disclose information, Choi said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that anyone committed a crime. But he also said the investigation continues.
There’s the potential for other consequences too. Pope Francis recently announced he created a tribunal at the Vatican to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up for priests who sexually abused children. The new judicial section will be created “to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors,” a Vatican statement said.
Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said given everything that’s going on in St. Paul and Minneapolis — from a state law that opened a window for victims of prior abuse to file claims, to the archdiocese filing for bankruptcy — he believes Archbishop John Nienstedt is “at or near the top of the list” of bishops who will be scrutinized.
In addition, a high-profile lawsuit that accused the archdiocese’s handling of abusive priests of amounting to a public nuisance led to disclosures of dozens of priests’ names. Nienstedt himself is under internal investigation for sexual misconduct, an allegation he has denied.
“All of these pieces are coming together, interestingly, at the same time that the Vatican is taking an institutional approach to exactly the problem that Neinstedt presents them with,” McKiernan said. “He’s definitely got a target painted on his back.”
That depends on how both sides proceed. Reid said the archdiocese has three options: plead guilty and pay the fine, go into negotiations with prosecutors or contest the matter and go to trial.
Both prosecutors and officials from the archdiocese have said they have the same goal of ensuring that what happened in the Wehmeyer case doesn’t happen again.
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