Survivor wants to know what will happen to an abusive St. Cloud priest once he’s freed from prison

Star Tribune [Minneapolis MN]

October 12, 2022

By Erica Pearson

The Rev. Anthony Oelrich pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct, yet is still a member of the priesthood.  

What happens when an abusive priest gets out of prison?

One Minnesota woman — who testified in 2019 that St. Cloud priest Anthony Oelrich sexually abused her — is still trying to find out, even as Oelrich’s release date nears.

Oelrich pleaded guilty to one felony count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, but he has yet to be dismissed from the priesthood — and it’s unclear when or if he will be.

“Now I’m just in limbo waiting,” said Deborah, who lives in a northern Twin Cities suburb and asked to use her first name only. “My faith is so wounded. I would like to see my church do something better and not once again put an abuser out there to abuse.”

Deborah asked the Diocese of St. Cloud what will happen to Oelrich. This summer, she and her husband met with Bishop Donald Kettler. But Kettler revealed little about Oelrich’s future, she said.

“He said, ‘I sent in an investigation to Rome. I have to wait. It’s their call,'” she said.

Defrocking, formally called loss of clerical state or laicization, is a complicated process that can take years. And some in the Catholic Church maintain that abusive priests should remain suspended so bishops can control their whereabouts, even if the church must continue to provide those priests with financial support.

While Oelrich’s priestly faculties have been suspended since his 2018 arrest, the diocese financially supported him and provided housing leading up to his guilty plea. He was required to pay his own legal fees. As long as he is still a member of the priesthood, the diocese is obligated to continue paying his salary after he gets out of prison Oct. 17.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has represented clergy abuse survivors for decades, said that while only Pope Francis can laicize, or defrock, a priest, Kettler controls Oelrich’s immediate future. Under the St. Cloud diocese’s $22.5 million settlement with clergy sex abuse survivors reached in 2020, the bishop has an obligation to Deborah and other survivors to be transparent, according to Anderson.

The Rev. Anthony Oelrich
The Rev. Anthony Oelrich

“That is effectively a breach of their obligations to the survivor and to the public and to the promises that they have made to be transparent and to be open,” he said. “It’s their job to tell this survivor exactly what [Oelrich’s] rights are, what privileges he’s still receiving, and what they are doing to support him, if at all.”

In a statement to the Star Tribune, Kettler apologized to “all those who have been hurt” by Oelrich’s actions. He acknowledged that Oelrich “cannot function or present himself as a priest, such as by celebrating public Masses, administering the sacraments, and wearing the Roman collar,” but “continues to receive his priest salary.” He will be responsible for his own housing and other expenses, Kettler said.

Oelrich’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment from the priest, who was sentenced to 41 months.

Like ‘coming out of a fog’

Deborah was a young mother struggling with an abusive husband when she went to Oelrich for pastoral counseling in 1992. The priest initiated a sexual relationship, she said.

“I felt like this was the only person to keep me safe in case one of these nights I would start getting hit again,” she said. “And yet I knew that person wants favors in response for that protection and friendship.”

Minnesota law makes it a crime for clergy to have a sexual relationship with someone to whom they are giving “religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private.” Consent is not a defense.

During confession, she told another priest about the abuse, but was advised to forgive Oelrich. When she went to church officials, she was asked if she had “seduced this priest” and was encouraged to attend a different parish.

Deborah, who divorced and later remarried, said she tried to forgive Oelrich, and even maintained a friendship with him for a time. It took therapy for her to realize she had been a victim of abuse.

“It was just like coming out of a fog,” she said. “And then I had to decide, ‘So what can I do about this? I can make a report or I can go in hiding.’ You only have one life, and if you can make an impact and if you can make anything better, why not do it?”

She is one of several women who reported Oelrich to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said Frank Meuers, leader of the Minnesota chapter.

“Long story short is that [the diocese] knew about this guy a long time ago,” Meuers said.

Deborah also called the police, but her abuse didn’t fall within the statute of limitations. In 2017, however, another woman reported to St. Cloud police that Oelrich had exposed himself to her in 2014 and initiated sex with her after she went to him for religious counseling about an abusive partner. Oelrich was arrested on Feb. 13, 2018.

According to the criminal complaint, Oelrich would show up at a victim’s house to “tuck her into bed” and ended sexual encounters with a blessing or prayer.The Rev. Anthony Oelrich

What happens next?

Dismissal from the priesthood is the Catholic Church’s most severe form of discipline because it is permanent, unlike excommunication or suspension. But it is rare.

The Vatican laicized 848 priests worldwide between 2002 and 2014, the last time statistics were published, according to an Associated Press report.

A decade ago, Minnesota priests who settled child sex abuse lawsuits weren’t defrocked, but quietly given administrative jobs, although one, Joseph Wajda, was later defrocked in 2016. Curtis Wehmeyer was in the middle of serving a five-year sentence for sexually abusing two boys when Pope Francis defrocked the former St. Paul priest in 2015.

At the time of his arrest, Oelrich, who grew up in Milaca, was pastor at the Christ Church Newman Center near St. Cloud State University. A member of the diocese since 1992, he’d served at eight other parishes, including St. Cloud’s Cathedral of St. Mary, where he introduced polka Masses at the annual block party.

During legal proceedings, prosecutors described Oelrich as a predator who followed a pattern — preying on vulnerable women who sought his counsel. Deborah was called to testify at a preliminary hearing.

When she took the stand, “I kept telling myself, ‘Why should I be afraid of telling the truth?’ ” she said. “It’s humiliating? Yeah. It is. That’s the worst part of it.”

But afterward, she was heartened when she was thanked for her testimony by others, including the mother of the woman whose report led to Oelrich’s arrest.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections has kept Deborah updated about Oelrich’s release date. And she knows his guilty plea requires him to register as a sex offender. But she is still waiting to hear if he will be allowed to continue as a priest.

“At least if he’s just a citizen there’s not the cloak of the priesthood.” she said. “At least take the sheep’s clothing from the wolf.”Erica Pearson covers faith and spirituality for the Star Tribune. Before joining the Star Tribune, she spent more than a decade at the New York Daily News, where she was an assistant city desk editor.erica.pearson@startribune.com612-673-4726ericalpearson