Sex Abuse Case Linked to Church in Darwin
By Andrew Broman
March 10, 2016
A new lawsuit against the Diocese of New Ulm alleges a priest years ago sexually abused a boy while at St. John’s Church in Darwin, the first time a sex abuse case has been linked to a Meeker County parish.
Parishioners at St. John’s received a letter from the diocese last month stating a priest at the church from 1965 to 1969 has been accused of sexual abuse.
The priest, Charles Stark, retired in 1987 and died in 1991, according to the diocese.
The lawsuit alleges Stark abused an 11-year-old altar boy, who helped Stark with day-to-day church activities, including Mass, funerals and weddings. The boy was a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or CCD, student, and he was also paid to do “odd jobs” like mowing the lawn and edging sidewalks, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges Stark in 1969 “engaged in unpermitted sexual contact” with the plaintiff, who is not identified in the suit.
In a Feb. 5 letter to St. John parishioners, Bishop John M. LeVoir states the diocese is “dedicated to ensuring a safe environment in Church ministry,” adding that “for more than a decade” abuse awareness and prevention programs have been required for clergy, church staff and volunteers who work with minors.
“As this case moves forward, I ask you to join me in prayer for all those who have been affected by sexual misconduct on the part of clergy. Know that I as your bishop and the diocese are committed to offering healing, reconciliation and hope,” LeVoir’s letter states.
Similar letters also went to other churches where Stark served, including St. Andrew’s Church in Granite Falls, where another priest accused of sexual abuse, now-deceased Francis Markey, worked. Stark was at St. Andrew’s from 1969 to 1971, while Markey served at St. Andrew’s in 1982.
According to the attorney representing the plaintiff in the Stark case, Michael Finnegan, he plans to file a second lawsuit against the diocese also involving sexual abuse allegations against Stark during his time at St. John’s Church. The plaintiff in the second case was allegedly abused between 1967 and 1968, said Finnegan of St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates.
There is also a third case pending that involves Stark during his time at another church, Finnegan added.
The latest suit against Stark is one of many initiated against Minnesota dioceses since 2013. A law was enacted that year removing the statute of limitations for child victims of sex crimes, though the deadline for initiating a claim ends May 25. Previously, accusers seeking damages for sexual abuse had to file lawsuit before they reached 24 years old.
A parishioner and member of St. John’s Church council, Wes Edwards, said he has no tolerance for anyone who commits sexual abuse, but he questions the timing of the Stark lawsuit and motivations of attorneys representing alleged church sex abuse victims.
“Why now? Why, after 45 years is this coming out when somebody cannot even defend himself?” Edwards said, referring to Stark. “There’s just so many discripencies with something like this.”
Edwards, a church member for 17 years, said the allegation against Stark “came as a shock to everybody” and “totally out of the blue.”
Finnegan said the delay in the plaintiff reporting the allegation is not unusual.
“It’s almost across the board that survivors of church sex abuse don’t come forward for years if not decades after the abuse, and most survivors suffer in secrecy and silence and shame, and they blame themselves for what happened,” Finnegan said.
Regarding his firm’s motivations, Finnegan said, the firm has performed a public service by seeking to force dioceses to release their lists “credibly accused” priests.
“The more transparency there is, the more likely it is the kids will be protected,” he added.
The New Ulm Diocese is the only diocese in Minnesota not to release such a list, according to Finnegan. A court ordered the St. Paul and Winona dioceses to release their lists, while Duluth, Crookston and St. Cloud dioceses all released their lists voluntarily.
Finnegan began pushing for the New Ulm Diocese’s list in 2013 as part of a lawsuit regarding sexual abuse allegations against Markey during his time at St. Andrew’s Church.
The diocese admitted in 2003 that 12 priests from the diocese had been accused of sexually abusing children, according to the suits involving Markey and Stark.
Diocese spokesperson Chris Clancy stated “the Diocese of New Ulm has been in discussions with the plaintiff’s attorneys” regarding the release of the list of accused priests and “is working to come to a fair resolution about that issue.”
A previous version of this story included a typographical error in Bishop John M. LeVoir's response regarding the allegations against Stark.