Priest Allegedly Admits Sexually Abusing Boy
Lawyer Says Abuse Continued for Years
By Paul McEnroe
December 5, 1991
A Catholic priest in St. Paul has admitted that he sexually abused a teenage boy in 1982, and the victim's attorney says the sexual contact continued into adulthood.
The attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, said that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about the abuse after it first occurred at St. John's Catholic Church in Hopkins, but allowed the priest to remain there. He said that the archdiocese moved the priest to another parish only after a second accusation six months later and that the archdiocese did not help the victim get psychological help.
A civil suit alleging sexual abuse by the Rev. Robert Thurner, 66, is expected to be filed today by Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has handled sexual abuse cases involving children and Catholic priests, most notably one involving the Rev. Thomas Adamson. The archdiocese also is being sued for failing to act after the first incident was reported.
Thurner retired suddenly on Sunday from St. Therese Catholic Church in St. Paul, where he had served since 1986.
The case comes about a year after the archdiocese settled the highly publicized case of Adamson, who admitted to sexual acts with boys during two decades in several parishes in Minnesota. A victim in that case was awarded $ 3.5 million in damages from the archdiocese, which was criticized for allowing Adamson to continue serving even after church officials learned that he had sexual relations with boys repeatedly.
Anderson alleges that Thurner had sexual relations with three boys and that the priest, in sworn depositions, admitted to having sex with one of them.
After serving at the Hopkins church, Thurner moved to St. Joseph's in St. Paul, then served briefly at St. Edward's in Bloomington before moving to St. Therese in June 1986.
In a letter sent to St. Therese's 1,400 parishioners Monday, Archbishop John Roach explained Thurner's retirement and the sexual misconduct allegations. It appears that only the parish leaders at St. Therese, located in the southwest corner of St. Paul, were told earlier of Thurner's past.
In the letter, Roach said Bishop Robert Carlson, who was appointed administrator at St. Therese after Thurner's retirement, will speak to parishioners tonight. "This news will raise questions for you and perhaps prompt some strong reactions," the letter said.
People who knew Thurner spoke Wednesday of an emotional farewell for the priest Sunday. "In your wildest dreams, you'd never believe it," said Joe Geiser, who has known Thurner for years. "Nothing on the surface was there to ever indicate this kind of thing about him."
Roach's letter portrayed a church hierarchy alerted to accusations and intent on overseeing Thurner's activities, making sure he was "pastoring well" by monitoring him and giving him psychological assessments.
Anderson says depositions taken by him from archdiocese officials last spring "show they knew of the abuse, that they let Thurner stay in the parish where the abuse first took place, back in Hopkins at St. John's - and that even after a second accusation six months later, the church only moved him to another parish."
According to sworn testimony by Thurner, Roach, Carlson and another priest, the Rev. Jerome Boxleitner, Thurner enticed the boy with pornography and alcohol, then frequently had sex with him. The former victim, now a college student in his 20s, reportedly continued seeing Thurner after the priest moved to different parishes.
The depositions, Anderson said, also show that Thurner, a graduate of the St. Paul Seminary and a 1946 graduate of Cathedral High School in St. Paul, admitted a sexual history beginning in 1951 when he was ordained, violating his vow of celibacy by frequenting adult bookstores and gay bathhouses, where anonymous sexual encounters took place. "He admitted to having sex with dozens of individuals," Anderson said.
"This is a story as ugly as the Adamson case," he continued. "The same type of coverup by the church. They are saying the police investigated, but there is no evidence of that, even from their depositions under oath, that a police agency ever looked into any of this. And nothing was ever done for this boy, no counseling."
Roach's letter told parishioners that Thurner's retirement was due in part to health and age but added, "There was another important factor, however, which I want you to hear about from the Church rather from other sources. In fact it has bothered me that I have been unable to share this with you before now. . . . before coming to your parish, Father Thurner was accused of sexual misconduct."
Joan Bernet, communications director of the archdiocese, said yesterday that Roach was out of state and could not be reached for comment. Thurner also was unavailable.
"Father Thurner suggested himself that he resign - he was not being forced out - because he didn't want to burden the parish with what charges he expected to be coming up, especially since they didn't initially involve his parish," Bernet said.
She was not able to say why the victim didn't receive help at the time, saying, "It's the first thing they do today. That was then."
Bishop Carlson said yesterday that the sexual abuse complaint against Thurner "first came to us from the boy's mother. I talked to her at least once, maybe twice. When it all came to a head I was told police were investigating it, so I did nothing more about it. There is a memo in the file to that effect. I don't know what happened after that. My involvement stops with the police report."
Anderson said that based on information given by church officials in depositions, this is how the relationship evolved and how the archdiocese responded:
"In November 1982, Catholic Social Services called Boxleitner, who was then head of Catholic Charities, saying there was this kid being abused. Boxleitner called Bishop Carlson and then-Vicar General Ambrose Hayden. On Nov. 9, 1982, they all asked Thurner, 'Are you sexually abusing him?' and Thurner says, 'I'm having sex with him. I'll tell the archbishop.'
"On Nov. 10, Thurner tells Archbishop Roach what he's been doing, and the archbishop says he might have to resign. But the letter of resignation Thurner wrote wasn't accepted and he goes back to the parish - St. John's in Hopkins. Then, around Easter, there's another report and they say to Thurner, 'You're going to have to leave the parish.' Nobody was told. No police."
In his letter, Roach said he'd been keeping close tabs on Thurner: "I took some steps at that time to address the question. I did not assign him to work with you until I had appropriate reassurances that it was safe to do so. Over the years, I have taken several steps to make certain that he was pastoring well. Those steps included regular monitoring, further psychological assessment, and some disclosure with parish leaders about the concern raised in the past."
But Anderson said Thurner continued seeing the victim and had sex with him while pastoring at St. Therese. "They became emotionally attached," he said.
Despite the revelations, many parish members appear to be supportive of Thurner. "I'd say 99 percent of us feel he's about as good a pastor as you could ask for and it's too bad this became public knowledge," said Chris Malloy, a member for more than 40 years.
"When he left Sunday, most of the parish was in tears. He said the final mass and asked we give our money to the poor instead of any gifts for him," she said. "Ours is a forgiving religion, and if we can't forgive it's a pretty bad world."
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