Mother of Priest's Victims Reveals Family Pain, More Abuse and Church's Rebuke
By Madeleine Baran
Minnesota Public Radio
February 25, 2014
The mother of the boys abused by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer no longer ends her days with a silent prayer. Memories and flashbacks surface too easily in those quiet moments. Instead, she plays solitaire on her cell phone until sleep.
It's been nearly two years since she learned that two of her sons were abused by Wehmeyer and that one of the boys, in turn, sexually abused his 5-year-old twin sisters. Last year, a third son told her that he, too, had been abused by the priest. One of the boys, she also learned, abused an additional sibling. In all, six of her nine children have been sexually abused either by Wehmeyer or each other, she said.
Wehmeyer pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing two of the boys, ages 12 and 14, and possessing child pornography.
The family's life is now a blur of therapy appointments and psychiatric hospitalizations. It is, the mother said, "a war zone." She once hoped that some of her sons would become priests. Now she hopes that none commit suicide.
The mother, who asked that her name not be used to protect her children's privacy, spoke at length about the abuse — and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' response — for the first time in an interview last week with MPR News and another news organization. Victims' attorney Jeff Anderson has filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese on behalf of one of the boys.
More painful than the abuse, the mother said, is the knowledge that top church officials could have prevented it. MPR News reported in September that leaders in the archdiocese kept secret Wehmeyer's risky sexual behavior when Archbishop John Nienstedt appointed him pastor in 2009 of Blessed Sacrament and St. Thomas the Apostle, two St. Paul parishes that later merged.
Today, they're blaming her.
In a court filing earlier this month, lawyers for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said that the mother, who still works at the St. Paul parish, should not have allowed her children to spend time alone with Wehmeyer.
"She was aware of the time (her son) spent with Mr. Wehmeyer, and she knew that such interaction was contrary to established Archdiocese policy," the archdiocese said in its filing, which was in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the youngest victim.
It was almost too much to bear, said the mother, a devout Catholic.
"I thought they were the most intelligent, holy men that I'd ever have the privilege to meet and listen to speak about our faith. And then to find out that it's all about butts in the pews and money in the banks and we don't really give a crap about what happens to people..."
"They'll never understand the devastation," she said through tears, head in hands.
She said she was shocked when the MPR News report appeared. It cited a 2011 memo revealing that former vicar general Rev. Kevin McDonough said parish employees didn't need to know about Wehmeyer's sexual addiction or interest in younger men. Memos showed that McDonough knew that Wehmeyer had been caught cruising in a St. Paul park and had approached young men for sex in a bookstore.
MPR News investigation: Archdiocese knew of Wehmeyer's sexual misbehavior, yet kept him in ministry (Sept. 23, 2013)
"The fact that there were memos flying around that were dated before certain events of abuse happened is bloodcurdling to me, that they had the opportunity to stop this man dead in his tracks before he ever harmed any of my children," she said.
She said the family's situation has grown increasingly desperate in recent weeks. The archdiocese has cut her hours at work and won't let her use sick or vacation time to care for her children, she said. The archdiocese had agreed to pay for the family's therapy, she said, but recently stopped paying some of the bills. The family won't receive its tax refund this year because it owes about $12,000 for the youngest son's 66-day stay at a Washington County crisis home this summer, she said. The boy now lives at a therapeutic boarding school more than a thousand miles away.
“[T]hey had the opportunity to stop this man dead in his tracks before he ever harmed any of my children.”
"It nauseates me to go to Mass and hear in the prayers of the faithful them say, 'Let's pray for the victims and their families,' when I've got a lien on my taxes because they won't pay my son's bill," she said.
Spokesman Jim Accurso said the archdiocese has agreed to pay the family's therapy bills and has followed through on that promise. It doesn't consider the bill from the boy's stay at a crisis home to be covered under that agreement, since the bill is for housing, not mental health treatment, he said.
"However, if her lawyer would like to call us, we're willing to discuss this with him," Accurso said. "To date he's not done so and we wish he would." Accurso said he cannot comment on the mother's claims about her work hours because he's not familiar with the negotiations between the woman and the new parish priest.
Nienstedt has not met with the family, the mother said. However, in December, he met privately with a group of priests to discuss the Wehmeyer case and the broader clergy sexual abuse crisis. He did not talk about the victims, according to an audio recording obtained by MPR News.
Instead, he bemoaned the resignation of his vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, who left after the MPR News report. Laird had taken part in the decision not to warn parish employees about Wehmeyer.
"I think the person who's been hurt the worst in this is Father Laird," Nienstedt said at the meeting.
He went on to blame reporters for creating the appearance of a cover-up that implicated Laird. "The ethical wheels have just come off the bus in terms of these communications people. They just, they don't care," he said. "They're out to make the story. And you know, so now everybody, because they read it in the paper, they think Father Laird has done this and he's guilty. Well he's not. It's so unfair."
The archbishop declined an interview request.
In an interview with MPR News last year, McDonough defended his decision to keep Wehmeyer's sexual addiction secret. "Nothing, nothing, nothing in this man's behavior would have convinced us that he was going to harm kids," he said.
McDonough said he talked to the victims' mother after learning of the abuse but declined to describe the conversation. "The mom and family are in charge of their own story ..." he said. "I like to respect people in their story, let them tell when they're ready."
The mother said she never met with McDonough.
Wehmeyer seemed a little odd, the mother said, but she never suspected he was sexually interested in children. She just thought he was lonely.
"I sort of felt that he was the geeky kid," she said. "He needed some friends. I thought it was almost like a, for lack of a better word, like a pity project to take this priest under our wing."
She used to have coffee with Wehmeyer in the parish office and sometimes went out to lunch with him and other parish employees.
The abuse took place in a white camper that Wehmeyer kept parked outside the parish, according to the police report. He lured the boys inside with drugs, alcohol and pornography. He made the boys touch themselves. On more than one occasion, he touched the boys, according to the report.
Wehmeyer also took the boys camping, although the archdiocese forbids priests from spending time alone overnight with children. In 2009, a man spotted Wehmeyer acting suspiciously with one of the boys at a campsite and called the archdiocese.
The mother said then-Auxiliary Bishop Paul Sirba called her at work a short while later and said that another adult should go on camping trips with Wehmeyer and the boys, to avoid the appearance of scandal.
Sirba didn't tell her that Wehmeyer had a sexual addiction or an interest in young men, she said.
If he had, the mother said, she would have quit her job and gotten her children as far away from Wehmeyer as possible.
"If you want to warn somebody that their children are in danger, say, 'Your children may be in danger if you let this happen,'" she said. "Don't say, 'You need to have another adult present.'"
Sirba, who is now the bishop of Duluth, told MPR News: "I did, in good faith and as best I could at the time with the knowledge I had, reach out to her in advance of the abuse happening, trying to say, 'Please, you know, follow these procedures ... so nothing would happen.'"
He added, "I extend my apologies if it was not enough and, yeah, my prayers."
"I CAN'T HAVE QUIET"
The mother said she never suspected that her children were being abused, but she did notice that their behavior had changed. The three sons struggled at school and yelled at their parents at home. She and her husband tried different parenting methods and took the boys to a doctor to see if they had attention deficit disorder.
At the same time, the mother's 5-year-old twin daughters would suddenly become distraught when she left the house for a few minutes to run errands. She thought her daughters were simply struggling with separation. She now knows that one of her sons sexually abused the girls while she was gone.
She can't shake the memories of leaving them in the house.
"I'd be pulling out of the drive and their hands would be on the sides of the doorjambs as their perpetrator, my son, was pulling them back in," she said. "And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow this is pretty extreme separation anxiety,' not knowing then that I was leaving them in the lion's den because he had already started to abuse them."
She continued, "And to this day, it's come out in the last month or two, that I can't have quiet. I turn the car radio off to drive in a snowstorm a month or so ago and it was just like I was being attacked with the visions of them on the doorjambs and the amount of times that I had left them there."
She said the stress has led to a terrible breakout of psoriasis that covered her body and sent her to the hospital for about two weeks in 2012.
In treatment, nurses wrapped her body "like the Shroud of Turin" three times a day to apply a treatment to help her skin recover. She was moved to a nursing home for about two weeks. Her doctor allowed her to leave for four hours to attend one of Wehmeyer's hearings. She arrived in a bathrobe with a jacket over it, she said.
It was a slow recovery. She was home-bound from early December of 2012 to early March of 2013. "I think the first Mass I went back to was Easter Sunday," she said.
Talking to reporters in her lawyer's office recently, her arms were covered in white blotches. She appeared exhausted.
The mother first learned of the abuse on May 31, 2012, when the 5-year-old twin daughters told her that one of their brothers had touched them. She couldn't figure out how the boy would've learned about sex. Wehmeyer showed me pornography, the boy said. The mother confronted Wehmeyer. The priest said that he caught the boy watching pornography and offered to provide counseling.
The mother, still not suspecting Wehmeyer had harmed her children, brought her son to the rectory to meet with the priest and confess to watching pornography.
The boy clenched his fists and pulled his hair while he sat on the couch in Wehmeyer's living room, and listened to the priest scold him.
She said she'll never forget the look of disgust her son gave her. Now she understands why. "Just like with the girls with their hands on the doorjambs, I had taken him back into the lion's den," she said, sobbing.
The mother told a priest at the archdiocese about the abuse in June, both on the phone and in a confessional, she said. Police were contacted June 20. Wehmeyer wasn't arrested right away, though.
Timeline: Risky priest, secret past (Sept. 23, 2013)
The mother said she received a phone call from St. Paul Police Sgt. Bill Gillet the night of June 20. She expected that when she showed up to work the next morning, Wehmeyer would be gone, but he wasn't. He'd just woken up when McDonough, the former vicar general who headed the archdiocese's child safety program, and Deacon John Vomastek, a former sex crimes officer with the St. Paul Police Department, showed up.
Wehmeyer asked the mother why McDonough was there. The mother pretended to act confused, and Wehmeyer went upstairs to the rectory where he kept his gun.
McDonough followed him "very cautiously, a step at a time," saying, "'I'm coming. I'm on my way up,'" the mother said.
Wehmeyer came downstairs and met with McDonough and Vomastek in his office. The mother was refilling her coffee when Wehmeyer stormed down the hall and yelled, 'What's going on? This has been blown out of proportion,'" the mother said.
"I said, 'No it's not been blown out of proportion ...' I said, 'You're a liar, you're a snake.' And he said you don't understand. And I said I understand perfectly. My son is not lying to me."
She went into her office but Wehmeyer followed her. She told him to get out. "I was pretty shaken by this time," she said, "And I just sat in my office and I was crying."
Wehmeyer came back a few minutes later and the mother again yelled at him to leave. She said he then admitted the abuse, said he would plead guilty and left her office.
Vomastek told her the archdiocese would do everything it could to help her family, she said.
A FAMILY IN CRISIS
A few weeks after the confrontation, the mother was putting away laundry when she heard her son say to one of his brothers, "Dude, just tell her. You'll feel so much better."
The boy took his brother's advice and went to his mother. "His chin was quivering and he said, 'Mom, he did it to me, too,'" she said.
About a year later, a third son claimed he had been abused by Wehmeyer at a campground in Chippewa Falls, Wis., the mother said. The boy reported the abuse to St. Paul police, who transferred it to Chippewa Falls, where it remains under investigation, she said.
The oldest victim goes to therapy and takes medication for depression. The next oldest victim failed a grade in high school because of stress caused by the abuse, the mother said, and also takes medication for depression.
The youngest victim, now 16, has been harmed the most by the abuse, the mother said. He began having sex with girls in school at age 13. At home, he'd throw things at his parents and yell. Then he started running away for days at a time. He met up with "street people" to do drugs, the mother said. He's been sent to juvenile detention centers and group homes.
She and her husband sent him to a therapeutic boarding school in another state but couldn't afford the plane ticket, she said. The archdiocese refused to pay until she threatened to call a reporter, she said. Accurso, the archdiocese's spokesperson, said he's not aware of any threatening phone call. He said the archdiocese paid for the tickets.
The mother dropped her son off at the boarding school on Oct. 28 — the Feast of St. Jude. It was fitting, she said: St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases.
The mother's twin daughters recently turned 8. One of the girls cannot fall asleep unless she's in her parents' bed. Both girls often wake up shaking and sweating from nightmares, the mother said.
A SENSE OF HOPE
The mother said she never really understood the impact of child sexual abuse until it happened to her family. She used to think victims' attorney Jeff Anderson was out to destroy the church.
"Jeff and I laugh quite frequently that his name and swear words were always synonymous in our house," she said. "We thought he was the scum of the earth."
Now she praises him as one of the few people who is trying to help her family.
She hopes that the lawsuit Anderson filed on behalf of her youngest son will force the archdiocese to pay for his therapy and for the trauma of the abuse.
But, she said, "It's not just about the help. I wish and my husband wishes that our case against them could be punitive, that they have to pay for the stupidity of thinking that they could keep moving these priests knowing what they know."
Her family prays every day for Jennifer Haselberger, the former church chancellor who resigned in protest last April over the archdiocese's handling of Wehmeyer and other abusive priests. Haselberger came to MPR News in July and exposed the church's secrets. Without her, the family would never have realized that the archdiocese knew about Wehmeyer's sexual addiction and failed to warn them, the mother said.
"I think she's an incredibly brave woman," the mother said."We are deeply indebted to her and we cannot thank her enough."
Haselberger has given the family hope that there are still good Catholics in the world who want to do the right thing, the mother said. Most of the family still goes to church every week.
"That's what keeps me going, is that I can just keep my eyes on Christ and try not to think of all this trash," she said.