Open Letter from Archbishop John Nienstedt Regarding Clarance Vavra

By John C. Nienstedt
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
November 11, 2013

[with audio]

Clarence Vavra, a priest ordained in 1965, was removed from ministry in 2003. We take extremely seriously the concerns and questions about Vavra’s crimes against minors and the archdiocese's handling of them.

In 1995, Vavra self-reported that he engaged in sexual contact with several young boys and a teenage boy during the time when he worked on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in approximately 1975. Vavra was not removed from ministry at the time for his admitted crimes. Instead, he went to inpatient treatment in 1996 and continued with outpatient treatment thereafter until at least 1998. He was allowed to go back into active ministry under the supervision of other priests until 2003. Vavra also engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with other adult males during his tenure as an active priest.

After the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was promulgated in 2002, Vavra’s status was reevaluated in light of his prior conduct and the archdiocesan Clergy Review Board determined that he had violated the Charter and recommended in May 2003 he be removed from ministry. As a result, Vavra agreed to be removed from all ministry in June 2003.

Clarence Vavra not only violated his victims and their families, he violated his sacred trust as a priest and he deeply offended his fellow clergy and the laity. Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him. In the spirit of offering him a path to healing and redemption, too much trust was placed in the hope of remedying Vavra’s egregious behaviors. Not enough effort was made to identify and care for his victims. Under our standards today, Vavra should have been removed permanently from ministry when he openly admitted his crimes and the civil authorities should have been notified immediately.

Further, after Vavra was removed from ministry, he received a transitional support payment of $650 per month that should have been made only until he reached eligibility for retirement benefits, but instead continued until 2012. As soon as these payment errors were discovered as part of an audit process, they were stopped and have not been reinstated.

Vavra is now in his mid-70’s and has been on a monitoring program of the archdiocese since December 2008. This program requires restrictions and conditions, including no unsupervised contact with any minors, including family members.

Why Not Laicization

The decision to sequester Vavra by removing him from all ministry,  monitoring his behavior and ensuring he is living a life of prayer and penance was approved by the Holy See as an appropriate response to his abusive behavior.  The decision not to seek laicization – removal from the priesthood altogether – was based on a desire by the archdiocese to be responsible for such men versus placing them outside of the Church and unsupervised as lay citizens who would have no restrictions. There was an earnest effort to be responsible.

Changes Are Needed in Our Monitoring Program

However, we have now determined that a full review and analysis of the effectiveness of the monitoring program is warranted and we will make major changes to the approach we have been taking with the program since its inception in 2005. We will obtain the recommendations of outside experts so that our program reflects best practices.

Disclosure of Offending Priests

Further, to demonstrate our commitment to the safety of minors and transparency, we will be disclosing information about priests who are known by us to have Charter violations. Our ability to disclose all names is reliant on the completion of the independent file review that I ordered in early October and communicated in my column in The Catholic Spirit on October 24. However, during the month of November, and upon receipt of permission of the relevant court, the Archdiocese will be disclosing the names, locations and status of priests who are currently living in the Archdiocese, and who we know have substantiated claims against them of committing sexual abuse against minors. All of these men have been removed from ministry.

Outside Firm to Review Clergy Files

We expect to announce next week the name of the outside firm we will be hiring to do the file review. These national experts have the experience and expertise to ensure our investigation efforts are thorough and objective. We will announce results when this process is complete.

Mandatory Reporting

We also want to assure the public that in all cases under my leadership, we have complied with mandated reporting requirements to law enforcement.

Our Sorrow and Why I Am Making These Changes

Serious mistakes have been made in the archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases. Offering expressions of regret and sorrow seems so inadequate in the context of the crimes of the offenders and our failures to deal with them properly. And yet, I must say how sorry I am. My heart is heavy for the victims of this repugnant abuse.

As Catholics, we are a family called to live out the commandments with love and humility. We are called to serve others with compassion, in the recognition of the dignity of every human person. Jesus asks us to walk humbly with him and to bring others into a relationship with him through our witness. We cannot do this if, by our own actions, we do not radiate his light and love ourselves.

For the sake of the dignity of each human person and for the sake of our souls, we must fix this problem of sexual misconduct right now. For the sake of the God we love and serve, and for all who are counting on Catholic leadership to live by our beliefs and our word, I will not allow it to stand.

The people and clergy of this archdiocese have my word that we are proceeding with urgency and vigilance to support the actions of our independent task force and third-party review of our clergy files.

Only with the understanding and sharing of this information will we begin to heal and rebuild our relationship of trust. There is nothing more important.


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