Judge Orders Winona Diocese to Release List of All Priests Accused of Abuse since 2004
By Madeleine Baran
Winona Daily News
January 4, 2014
A Ramsey County judge extended the deadline Friday for the Diocese of Winona and Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to disclose new lists of priests accused of sexually abusing children since 2004.
Judge John Van de North already forced church officials in December to disclose the names of “credibly accused” priests on an earlier list. But the dioceses now have until Feb. 5 to produce the new list, which would include the names of all priests who have been accused of child sexual abuse since 2004.
In court Friday, archdiocese lawyer Tom Wieser objected to the broad scope of the order, as did the attorney for the Diocese of Winona. “It’s not reasonable,” Wieser said. “It’s not fair that every allegation, every mere allegation be disclosed.”
“We are delighted the judge didn’t retreat” in ordering full disclosure of the names of all the accused, not just the credibly accused, said attorney Jeff Anderson in an interview Friday.
The judge “tilted in favor of safety for children,” he said.
Joel Hennessy of the Winona diocese said the diocese had sought clarification for releasing new names, because the diocese is concerned with any false or malicious allegations that might have been made.
The archdiocese proposed a plan in which it would report all abuse allegations to police, and if no criminal charges are filed, then the archdiocese would conduct its own investigation. If that investigation found the allegation was credible, it would be disclosed to the public. If not, the information would be turned over to the court to decide whether the claim is credible. Only credible claims would be disclosed.
Van de North acknowledged the archdiocese’s concerns but defended his order. He said it provides a balance between the rights of accused priests and the safety of children, adding, “If you’re going to tilt that scale a little bit, you’re going to tilt it in favor of protecting children.”
The judge suggested appointing a three-person panel to review allegedly false claims to determine whether they should be disclosed to the public. He urged attorneys on both sides to come together to find acceptable, neutral panel members.
Van de North said the public likely will not trust the archdiocese to determine the truth of an allegation, given the church’s past failure to report child sexual abuse claims to police. He said he would also “have a problem” with the archdiocese evaluating claims. And he criticized the archdiocese for continuing to release statements about accused priests that rely on vague phrases, like “boundary violations.”
“I don’t think anybody knows what that means,” Van de North said. “One person’s boundary violation is another person’s sexual abuse. I think, again, that type of fuzzy terminology is troubling to me.”
The case involves a public nuisance claim brought by an unnamed alleged victim of the Rev. Thomas Adamson against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of Winona and Adamson. The man claims that the church is creating a public nuisance by keeping information about abusive priests secret.
Van de North asked the archdiocese to submit a proposal for how to handle allegedly false allegations by Jan. 10 and the attorneys for the alleged victim to respond with their proposal by Jan. 17.
Van de North held out the possibility that some accusations would remain private because they were found to be baseless. But he said he stands by the original intent of his order — to create a “broad net” to catch all allegations.
The hearing also touched on the broader issue of clergy sexual abuse.
Wieser, the archdiocese’s lawyer, argued that child sexual abuse is no more common in the Catholic priesthood than elsewhere. Van de North’s order, he said, could create a precedent to force schools, social service agencies and others to disclose information on people accused of child sexual abuse.
Van de North replied that the archdiocese is unique because, unlike other groups, it has failed for years to report child sexual abuse claims to police. “In some ways, they’ve sort of brought that on themselves by not being forthcoming in the past,” he said.
Plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Anderson also challenged Wieser’s claim. “There are no other organizations doing things like this and have been caught doing things like this for decades,” he said. “They are unique ... as a result of that, children are gravely imperiled and remain so until there’s full disclosure.”
Wieser defended the archdiocese’s handling of allegations. “I am not aware of any situation where the archdiocese failed to comply with the statute requirement on reporting,” he said.
Daily News reporter Jerome Christenson contributed to this story.