HIBBING — A Hibbing priest accused of sexually abusing four girls was "grooming" the girls and their families by befriending them, St. Louis County prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich told jurors Wednesday.
"Any time he saw an opportunity to get what he wanted, he took it," Vlatkovich said in his opening statement as the criminal sexual conduct trial of Brian Michael Lederer began in State District Court in Hibbing.
A 12-year-old girl was the first of the alleged victims to take the witness stand in the trial that is expected to last five days. She recounted the surprise she felt when Lederer allegedly touched her inappropriately several times at Assumption Catholic School in Hibbing, while her father recalled in his testimony the shock he felt on the day his daughter told him about the touching.
"You always think it'll happen to someone else, in some other town. You don't think it'll happen in your family," the girl's father said.
However, Lederer's defense attorney, Peter Wold of Minneapolis, said the allegations are the result of an infatuation the girls had with Lederer, who was described as a young priest beloved by Assumption students. The touching occurred at times when other adults and students were in the room and were nothing more than misperceived and misunderstood moments, possibly caused by hard feelings of rejection and jealousy over Lederer, Wold said. Once two sisters came forward with allegations, it snowballed into four girls making allegations, three of whom were classmates, he said.
"Brian is a very decent young man. He's a lamb," Wold told the jury.
The allegations are coming at a time when the Catholic Church is under scrutiny from past cases of sexual abuse committed by priests, with people hiring "big-time plaintiff lawyers" to go after the church, he said. With the news of Lederer's arrest spreading in the community, Wold said, a hand on the shoulder became something more.
"Then innocuous action became sexual actions," he said.
Lederer, 30, is charged with four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. The most serious charges against Lederer carry a potential penalty of up to 25 years in prison.
Lederer, who worked at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hibbing and the Assumption Catholic School, was arrested on the charges in May 2015. He was placed on administrative leave by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth pending the outcome of the legal process. Ernest Stauffenecker, director of the Duluth Diocese's Office of Safe Environment, testified Wednesday that members of the clergy go through a video training, are required to sign a form acknowledging that they've read the church's policy regarding children and pass a background check.
Vlatkovich, in his opening statements, said the process of the four girls coming forward began with one girl, who was 10 years old at the time, telling her mother, "I've got something to tell you. You're going to want to hear it." Vlatkovich told the jury that the girl then told her mother about Lederer touching her and her older sister, who was 13 years old at the time.
Two other girls later alleged that Lederer inappropriately touched them, too.
Recounting those alleged incidents, the 12-year-old girl who testified Wednesday morning said she "felt really awkward," wasn't sure he should be touching her in that way and moved away from him. She said she was nervous to tell an adult because she was scared that no one would believe her.
"I didn't know if I should tell or not," she said.
She said she initially said "no" when her father asked her if anything had happened after he heard Lederer had been arrested, because she was embarrassed. She began crying after her father asked, and a friend who was visiting the house suggested she tell her father. Once other girls came forward, she realized that she wasn't the only girl it happened to, she testified.
A friend told her parents at the same time that Lederer had touched her inappropriately, too, becoming the fourth girl to come forward. The two families each contacted police, not know the other family was also reporting it, Vlatkovich said.
On cross-examination by Lederer's attorney Aaron Morrison, the girl's father said that he knew children at Assumption were fond of Lederer. Morrison repeatedly had the witnesses recount whether people were present in the room at the time the touching allegedly occurred, and questioned which body parts Lederer allegedly touched.
Responding to questions from Morrison, the 12-year-old girl testified that she didn't notice a change in how the other three girls behaved around Lederer until he was arrested.
Vlatkovich rebutted with questions about the 12-year-old's behavior after the first instance of alleged inappropriate touching by Lederer. The girl responded that she didn't think anything bad was going to happen again because getting help with things like homework shouldn't involve physical contact with a teacher.
The trial continued with additional witnesses Wednesday afternoon, and is scheduled to continue today and Friday.
Sixth Judicial District Judge David Ackerson previously denied a defense motion to dismiss the felony charges against Lederer, concluding that a jury should decide whether Lederer is guilty.
Authorities also charged Lederer with possession of child pornography after recovering suspected images from his computer, but Ackerson in December granted a motion to sever that count from the case, finding that it was not part of the "single behavioral incident."