Archdiocese Knew of Priest's Sexual Misbehavior, Yet Kept Him in Ministry
By Madeleine Baran
Minnesota Public Radio
September 23, 2013
|Curtis Wehmeyer’s eight years as a St. Paul priest are dotted with episodes of risky, sex-fueled behavior -- and the leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew all about it. Last year, the parish of Blessed Sacrament faced a horror: Wehmeyer was convicted for his sexual abuse of two teenage boys.|
|The Rev. Kevin McDonough served as vicar general — the archbishop's second in command — from 1991 to 2008. He's pastor of two parishes and has long been a leader within the archdiocese. |
|St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson has been representing victims of sexual abuse across the country for nearly 30 years.|
Curtis Wehmeyer kept his white 2006 camper parked outside Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul where he served for six years, three of them as pastor.
With the shades drawn, Wehmeyer could avoid the obligations of priestly life. He got drunk, smoked pot and looked at child pornography. He also lured to the camper two boys whose mother worked at the parish, plied them with alcohol, turned on pornography and told them to touch themselves. Several times, he touched one of the boys, according to police records.
The family trusted "Father Curt." As a priest, he had special powers. He could anoint the sick and baptize the young. Maybe, the mother hoped, he could inspire one of her sons to become a priest.
That hope died last summer when one of the boys told his aunt what happened in the camper. The mother went to another priest, and then to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Soon after, police arrested Wehmeyer, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing the boys, ages 12 and 14, and possessing child pornography. A judge sentenced the priest to five years in prison.
In public statements, the archdiocese expressed regret for "the pain caused by clergy misconduct" and offered support to victims. And it emphasized that it immediately reported the allegations to police. "They did the right thing," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in September 2012.
The message from the archdiocese was clear – this wouldn't be like the many horrific clergy sex abuse cases that rocked the Roman Catholic Church a decade ago. Times had changed. The safety of children mattered more than the career of a predator priest.
The reality was far different. This wasn't the first time Wehmeyer had been in trouble. Top archdiocese leaders knew of Wehmeyer's sexual compulsions for nearly a decade but kept him in ministry and failed to warn parishioners, according to canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April, and dozens of other interviews and documents.
A memo written in 2011 obtained by MPR News from police shows the former vicar general – the top deputy of the archdiocese – did not want parish employees to know about Wehmeyer's past.
"At every step of the way, this could have been prevented," Haselberger said. "This is just failure after failure after failure after failure."
The decision in 2011 to still keep Wehmeyer's sexual behavior secret came at a time when the Rev. Kevin McDonough was assuring the archdiocese's 800,000 parishioners that the church was doing everything it could to protect children from abuse. Across the nation bishops were being forced to confront their decisions to protect priests and hide abuse, which resulted in millions of dollars in payments to victims. At the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal had been minimal.
McDonough likely knows more about clergy sexual abuse cases than anyone else at the archdiocese. He served as vicar general from 1991 to 2008 under Archbishops John Roach and Harry Flynn and more recently served as the "delegate for safe environment," a job that includes oversight of all child abuse prevention efforts in the archdiocese. He quietly left that role earlier this month.
In an interview with MPR News in 2010, McDonough said priests need to be held to a high standard. "The reality is our first obligation is to protect the members of the church," he said. "So we ought to be, of course, a hundred times stricter against anyone who could harm especially the vulnerable members of our church."
At the time he said that, McDonough already knew that Wehmeyer had engaged in troubling sexual encounters — that he had approached young men for sex at a bookstore and cruised nearby parks.
In the 2011 memo to the head of the archdiocese's program for monitoring priests who posed a risk, McDonough explained why he thought parish employees didn't need to know about Wehmeyer's actions.
"I think that you share with me the opinion that he really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by 'playing with fire,'" McDonough wrote. "This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace."
McDonough also asked Wehmeyer for his opinion on whether to tell parish employees. Wehmeyer, who by that time had already sexually abused the children of a parish employee, advised against it.
McDonough wrote, "I agree with Father Curtis that disclosure there would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!)"
He concluded, "My recommendation is that we would encourage (or even require) Father Wehmeyer to disclose his pattern of self-destructive behavior to a small circle of trusted friends."
McDonough sent a copy of the memo to the Rev. Peter Laird, the current vicar general.
McDonough, in an interview with MPR News last week, said he still thinks that his response was appropriate and the risk zero, given the information available at the time. "Nothing, nothing, nothing in this man's behavior known to us would have convinced any reasonable person that he was likely to harm kids," he said.
Laird and Archbishop John Nienstedt declined to be interviewed for this story. Wehmeyer, who is in prison in St. Cloud, also declined an interview request.
"A grave danger," says one lawyer
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson exposed the clergy sex abuse cover-up in Minnesota in the 1980s. Since then, he’s filed lawsuits on behalf of thousands of victims of sexual abuse across the country.
"The review of this [McDonough's] memo sounds an absolute alarm that this guy is a grave danger," Anderson said. "And any parent that is told of even a part of the contents of this memo would never allow their kids to be even close to this … priest."
Anderson said the memo shows the archdiocese continues to cover up sexual acts by clergy and protect the reputation of its priests at the expense of the faithful.
"How many more are there being concealed and protected and given safe harbor by this archbishop and the choices he's making in real time right now?" Anderson said. "It's very upsetting."
Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest who was one of the earliest national whistleblowers on clergy sex abuse in the 1980s, said the memo shows that parents cannot trust the archdiocese to protect their children.
"Celibate clergy who aren't trained in psychology are in no position to make that kind of a judgment call over someone like Wehmeyer," he said.
Doyle called the memo "goofy, quasi-psychological mumbo jumbo."
"I mean, sit him down with a group of his peers and disclose to them what his problems are so that they'll help him mature? Wait a minute, come on. That's nonsense," he said.
Wehmeyer was born in Michigan in 1964, the product of an affair between a married woman and an unknown man. He had a "chaotic childhood," his lawyer told a judge early this year. Before moving to Minnesota, he studied industrial design and technology at Northern Michigan University.
Wehmeyer later enrolled in night classes at the University of St. Thomas, where he received a bachelor’s degree. Then he spent nearly two years with the Carmelite brothers at St. Michael in West St. Paul before deciding to enter St. Paul Seminary, according to a 2001 article in The Catholic Spirit newspaper headlined, "Architect drafts exciting new blueprint."
The newspaper profiled the newly ordained Wehmeyer, then 36, and included a photo of "Father Curtis" with short dark hair, a neatly trimmed goatee and a smile. He had just been assigned as associate pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in West St. Paul.
Wehmeyer told the newspaper he looked forward to helping people in need. He added that some of the rules of architecture also apply to the priesthood.
"A priest needs to stay in the parameters of what the church teaches," Wehmeyer said. "But the church, in her wisdom, allows a space that the priest can operate out of with a certain creativity to reach people where they're coming from."
Three years later – in 2004 – Wehmeyer approached two young men ages 19 and 20 for sex at a Barnes & Noble store in Roseville. "It was really strange, the way he came on to us," one of the men, Andy Chapeau, said in an interview with MPR News.
Wehmeyer leaned close to one of the men and said, "Are you f—horny right now?"
A Catholic parishioner and family friend who learned of the encounter took statements from the two men and sent them to McDonough, along with his own letter expressing alarm. The parishioner told McDonough that he had a 15-year-old son who attended a youth group with Wehmeyer.
McDonough met with the concerned parishioner and one of the men approached by Wehmeyer at the bookstore. He assured them that Wehmeyer was receiving counseling. The parishioner wasn’t satisfied with McDonough's answers, and he worried that he might hear about Wehmeyer in the news years later. When that happened, the parishioner wrote a furious letter to Nienstedt, the archbishop.
In an interview with MPR News, the parishioner declined to discuss what happened, calling it a "painful experience."
After Wehmeyer's actions at the bookstore, the archdiocese sent him to St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Silver Spring, Md., for clergy with sexual and psychological disorders. When Wehmeyer returned he was supposed to attend regular Sexaholics Anonymous meetings and report his attendance to then-Archbishop Harry Flynn, Haselberger said.
"I know I shouldn't be here"
Wehmeyer didn’t stay out of trouble for long.
An officer spotted the priest, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, inside a pickup truck at a popular cruising spot at a St. Paul park one afternoon in 2006. Wehmeyer told the officer he didn't know the area was a popular place for anonymous sex.
"The only thing he said was, 'I'm a priest. I know I shouldn't be here,'" the officer recalled.
Wehmeyer left, but circled back twice.
The officer knew McDonough, the vicar general, as the person at the archdiocese who handled clergy sex cases. Although the officer hadn't seen Wehmeyer breaking the law, he wanted to warn the church.
"They would have other little pieces that I wouldn't have, put it all together, they might be able to act on it, if they had other suspicions," he said. "It might be just enough for them to do something to prevent another child from being hurt."
He headed over to the Chancery on Summit Avenue in St. Paul to meet with McDonough. While the officer explained how he found Wehmeyer in the park, McDonough pulled out a book that looked like a yearbook for priests. "He opened it up to a page with, I don't know, 20 pictures on the page and said, 'Do you recognize anyone on this page?' And I said, 'Yeah, that's him right there,'" he said.
McDonough told the officer that the priest had already gotten in trouble for flirting with a young man at a bookstore, and that the archdiocese was "going to have a very serious follow-up and intercede … Whether it was treatment or discipline, I have no knowledge," the officer said.
That year, Flynn moved Wehmeyer to Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul to serve as parochial administrator.
New archbishop, same priest
Nienstedt was appointed archbishop in 2008 after Flynn retired. He hired Haselberger as the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs. She advised the archbishop on the internal laws of the Roman Catholic Church, which include specific procedures on the handling of grave sins like child sexual abuse, and ran the records department.
A few months after she arrived, Haselberger received an angry phone call from Wehmeyer, who believed he was supposed to be listed as the pastor of Blessed Sacrament, not simply as an administrator.
Haselberger opened Wehmeyer's file and realized there was no background check on the priest, even though the diocese had a policy that required background checks for all clergy.
Haselberger kept looking, and saw documents that reported Wehmeyer had a sexual addiction and the archdiocese knew about it.
She knew that Nienstedt was considering whether to promote Wehmeyer, so she sent him a memo alerting him to review the file. She also attached a copy of the earlier psychological and sexual assessment of Wehmeyer. The priest's personnel file included evidence that Wehmeyer had violated the archdiocese's code of conduct several times.
Haselberger assumed that would end Wehmeyer's career as a priest. It did not.
While she waited for a response, the archdiocese continued to receive reports on Wehmeyer — three in 2009.
In one case, a priest called to say that Wehmeyer had approached him for sex.
Someone else reported seeing Wehmeyer acting suspiciously with boys at a campground. Those were the same boys Wehmeyer was later accused of abusing, Haselberger said. The archdiocese’s child safety policy forbids priests from spending time overnight alone with a child.
Haselberger saw handwritten notes from then-Vicar General Paul Sirba about the campground complaint. Sirba called the mother of the boys and said she needed to help Wehmeyer observe appropriate boundaries, she said. Sirba, who is now the bishop of Duluth, did not return a call for comment.
Then, around midnight after his 45th birthday in September 2009, Wehmeyer drove drunk to a Kwik Trip gas station in Spring Valley and tried to pick up some teenagers. He asked one teenage boy how old he was and invited him to his campsite to celebrate his birthday.
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived, Wehmeyer pleaded with the officer not to arrest him.
"Wehmeyer stated he cannot get in trouble because he is a Catholic priest and way too many people depend on him," Fillmore County Sheriff Deputy Tim Rasmussen wrote in his report.
Rasmussen told Wehmeyer he was under arrest for drunk driving, and the priest asked to call Joseph Kueppers, a St. Paul lawyer in private practice who was one of his parishioners. Kueppers is now the top attorney for the archdiocese.
In 2010, Nienstedt appointed Wehmeyer as pastor of Blessed Sacrament and St. Thomas the Apostle, two St. Paul parishes that later merged.
Haselberger remembers the day she learned that Wehmeyer had sexually abused boys at Blessed Sacrament. She was walking past Andrew Eisenzimmer, the archdiocese's top attorney at the time, in the Chancery hallway.
"We've got another allegation of abuse," he said.
Haselberger followed him into his office and asked for the name of the priest.
"But I warned them," she said.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in a statement that it immediately reported the allegations of sexual abuse by Wehmeyer to police. However, the St. Paul Police Department investigative file indicates that the archdiocese did not talk to police for several days. It also never told police about Wehmeyer's past sexual behavior.
The horrific secret began to unravel on May 31, 2012, according to the police report, when two young girls in the same family told their mother that one of their brothers might have sexually abused them. The mother didn't understand how the boy could've learned about sex already. She asked him if he'd been watching pornography.
Yes, the boy said. Wehmeyer showed it to him.
The mother confronted Wehmeyer and he denied it.
Wehmeyer then invited the mother and her son into the living room of the rectory. He said he’d caught the boy using his computer in the camper — and he asked him to confess. The boy denied it "and hung his head down" in disbelief, the police report said.
A few days later, the mother met with the Rev. John Paul Erickson at the Church of Saint Agnes and told him that she thought one of her boys had sexually abused her two younger daughters. Erickson urged her to call police. There’s no indication in the police file that Erickson called police. Minnesota law requires priests to report allegations of child abuse, unless the priest learns of the allegation during confession.
The mother then talked to a relative who suggested that maybe someone had sexually abused her son. The relative came to their home and asked the boy if he wanted to talk to her about it. He "broke down crying and said yes he did," the relative later told police. One of the other brothers also talked, and they both described sexual abuse by Wehmeyer, according to the police report.
The mother called Erickson and told him about the allegations that Wehmeyer sexually abused her two boys. Erickson told the mother that he needed to report it to the archdiocese.
The mother called Erickson again on June 14. She told him that her son said Wehmeyer showed him pornography, gave him beer and cigarettes, exposed his genitals to the boy and touched the boy. Erickson told the mother she needed to report it to police.
Four days later, the mother called the director of the archdiocese's victim assistance program and scheduled a meeting for the next day. At that meeting, program director Greta Sawyer recorded an interview with the boy, before anyone who worked for the police had talked to him.
On June 20, Deacon John Vomastek, the clergy services director, emailed a St. Paul police commander in reference to the case. "The person we talked about will be relieved of duties tomorrow," Vomastek wrote.
Before police arrived, McDonough and Vomastek confronted Wehmeyer at the Blessed Sacrament rectory, according to police. McDonough took the priest's handgun and one of his computers and told Wehmeyer he needed to move out.
McDonough also told business administrator Debbie Phillips that Wehmeyer was being removed as pastor because of credible allegations of child sexual abuse. At a meeting later in the day, Phillips was told not to say anything to employees or parishioners.
That same day, Wehmeyer was getting ready to leave when Sgt. William Gillet of the St. Paul sex crimes unit showed up.
The priest's eyes were damp. "It was not watery from tears," Gillet said. "I think watery from fright."
Wehmeyer refused to answer questions. Gillet tracked Wehmeyer’s camper to a storage facility in Oakdale the next day. Gillet said he suspects Wehmeyer destroyed evidence because it was mostly empty. Police retrieved the computer and the gun from the archdiocese but didn’t get much cooperation from McDonough, who never returned the investigator’s calls, said Gillet.
McDonough said he doesn’t remember getting any phone calls from Gillet. "I have many, many people tell me they're calling me and they can't reach me," he said, because people forget to leave a message.
The police file suggests Wehmeyer was trying to gain access to other children. Police received a call last August from the leader of a Catholic youth group called Service to the Cross. She said Wehmeyer wanted to be the group’s spiritual director. She said she refused because she felt "uncomfortable" with him.
She told police that Wehmeyer hosted a youth group meeting at his church and brought his camper to a youth retreat in July 2011. About a year ago, she recalled, Wehmeyer said parishioners should pray for priests for "sins of sexuality."
Police said they're also investigating whether another boy was abused by Wehmeyer.
Haselberger said her life changed when she realized that she did not protect two children from an abusive priest.
"From the very moment, I've been asking myself, 'What else could I have done? What pressure did I not apply? Who didn’t I talk to? What on earth could have happened?'" Haselberger said.
"It's an enormous sense of guilt, and one of the things I found so troubling in the aftermath is that from where I was standing, I was the only person experiencing it."
McDonough, now the pastor of two churches, remains a prominent, influential figure in the Twin Cities. As he looks back, he said, he wishes that Wehmeyer had never become a priest. "I have tremendous, tremendous regrets about the outcome… But I have no regrets based on the information we have."
After the arrest, Haselberger recalled that no one at the senior level at the archdiocese held meetings to talk about how the abuse happened or how to help the victims. Instead, officials focused on how to spin the story as an example of the church's quick response to allegations of sexual abuse.
"I had a hard time with that, that attitude and the desire to portray it that way, instead of to be honest," she said. "There were a lot of senior staff that should have been wearing sackcloth and ashes and praying the rosary around the Cathedral in hopes that people would forgive us for letting this happen," she said.
After Wehmeyer pleaded guilty, Haselberger said she worked around the clock reviewing court records and drafted a letter for Archbishop Nienstedt to give to the Vatican requesting that Wehmeyer be kicked out of the priesthood. Nienstedt was already going to Rome in late November, so Haselberger assumed he could carry the letter with him.
"Father [Vicar General Peter] Laird came into my office with the file that I had prepared for the archbishop and gave it to me and said, 'You're going to have to send it FedEx.' And I was like, 'What? I thought the archbishop was going to carry it.' And he said something of the extent of that he didn't want to be bothered."
Laird left for Rome the following day.
Nearly a year later, the archdiocese is still waiting for an answer from the Vatican.
Even though no one had listened to her concerns about Wehmeyer, Haselberger hoped that would change after the archdiocese learned that he had abused two children.
"The people who were making the decisions not to disclose, the people who were making the decisions to appoint him in light of all this information, that we were monitoring him but failed to notice all of these incredible things, we should all be held responsible," she said.
"And as Catholics, thankfully, even if it doesn't happen in this life, we know it will in the next. There will be a reckoning."