Clergy Abuse: Papers Spur New Review of Wehmeyer Case
By Jean Hopfensperger
January 30, 2014
The Ramsey County attorney’s office and St. Paul police began reviewing documents Thursday that indicate that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis failed to notify authorities of a child sex-abuse accusation against a St. Paul priest within 24 hours, as required by law.
The move comes a day after County Attorney John Choi announced he would not prosecute the archdiocese for its reporting of the abuse complaint against the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, now in prison for sexually abusing two boys.
Within hours of that announcement, however, authorities received an archdiocese document that appeared to indicate that the archdiocese waited more than two days to notify police. The document was made public by Minnesota Public Radio.
“We’ll be looking at the new information as to the impact it may have on the investigation,’’ said Dennis Gerhardstein, spokesman for the county attorney’s office. “We’re still in the early stages of discussion.’’
The county attorney’s office and the police will issue a joint statement on Friday, “to say we’re on the same page,’’ Gerhardstein said.
Meanwhile, attorneys for one of the boys sexually abused by Wehmeyer filed a lawsuit Thursday against the archdiocese, claiming the church obstructed justice, destroyed evidence and failed to report the abuse within 24 hours.
Archdiocese e-mails and documents show that church officials were aware of the abuse several days before reporting it to police, allowing the archdiocese to “cover up evidence,” interview the child witness and begin its own investigation before contacting law enforcement, said St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson.
“This lawsuit is designed to do what [County Attorney] John Choi should have done,’’ Anderson said at a news conference.
The archdiocese repeated Thursday that it continues to support the county attorney’s findings. “We have continuously made ourselves available to law enforcement to address any outstanding questions … and we know, based on the body of facts of the case, that the findings announced yesterday by civil authorities are accurate.”
Why no search warrants?
The lawsuit represents a boy who, with his brother, was sexually molested by Wehmeyer in his trailer parked outside Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul. Wehmeyer is serving a five-year prison term.
Anderson questioned why police didn’t subpoena witnesses or get a search warrant for documents.
“You don’t rely on the suspect to turn over the evidence,’’ he said. “You seize it.’’
Police said they did not have sufficient evidence to do so.
Anderson said he met with Choi in September and provided him with detailed information about the documents that law enforcement should search for, and where they were stored in the chancery.
At the news conference, Anderson provided copies of e-mails between the archdiocese and the St. Paul police, as well as a decree signed by Archbishop John Nienstedt, saying he had received a complaint against Wehmeyer on June 18, 2012. The complaint, he wrote, indicated that Wehmeyer “had supplied alcohol and sexually explicit images to a minor, and fondled or attempted to fondle the minor’s genitals.’’
Anderson said the Nienstedt decree sheds light on the archdiocese’s priorities after the complaint. The archbishop appointed his vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, to conduct an investigation, but with stipulations: “Father Laird is to take care that such an investigation does nothing to harm Father Wehmeyer’s name or to violate his right to protect his privacy.’’
“What about protecting the kid?’’ asked Anderson. “What about the truth?’’
Archdiocese defends timeline
Archdiocese officials insist that they followed a proper timeline for reporting the abuse allegation. “The earliest that any representative of the archdiocese became aware of the specific allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by Wehmeyer was on the morning of June 19, 2012,” said a statement issued Thursday evening. “However, that information was provided to a priest of the archdiocese in the context of a pastoral relationship, which is considered privileged communication under Minnesota law.”
The statement said the archdiocese reported the allegations as soon as the mother of the victim waived that privilege.
“We have provided a detailed timeline to law enforcement with clear supporting documentation and stand ready to provide any additional information they may need,” the statement said.
Even if the law enforcement review doesn’t result in charges against the archdiocese, child protection advocates say the archdiocese violated best practices in its handling of the abuse complaint against Wehmeyer.
Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University, said state law required the archdiocese to report immediately, which is legally defined as “as soon as possible but in no event longer than 24 hours.’’