He Said, He Said.
By Grant Gallicho
April 25, 2014
In sworn testimony released yesterday, Fr. Kevin McDonough, former vicar general and abuse-prevention czar of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis disputed Archbishop John Nienstedt's claim that McDonough had advised him not to keep written records of conversations about accused priests because they might be discovered in litigation. Having served three archbishops, two as vicar general for nearly twenty years and Nienstedt as "delegate for safe environment," few know more about how the Twin Cities diocese handled clergy accused of sexual misconduct. (More from MPR here, full video here.)
During the six-and-a-half-hour interview--which ended abruptly after lawyers disagreed about the allotted time--McDonough acknowledged what most observers of the crisis already knew: for many years, archdiocesan practice was not to routinely laicize abusers. Nor did it, as a matter of policy, report all accusations to the police. But McDonough also provided his version of the events surrounding several controversial cases, including that of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, now jailed for molesting children, and that of Fr. John Shelley, whose computer was found to contain "borderline illegal" pornographic images (a county attorney did not press charges).
The release of McDonough's deposition comes two days after Nienstedt's was made public. Their court-ordered testimony was taken in connection with a lawsuit by a plaintiff who claims he was abused by a priest in the 1970s. The suit alleges that the archdiocese, along with the Diocese of Winona, created a public nuisance by hiding information about accused priests.
McDonough's deposition differs markedly from Nienstedt's, not only because it was about 50 percent longer (a judge ordered the archbishop to be deposed for four hours), but also because of the kinds of answers the former vicar general gave attorney Jeff Anderson. He spoke at much greater length--often to Anderson's chagrin--offered digressions, corrected the premises and terms of questions, showed a sense of humor, and even took a moment to compliment Anderson's choice of necktie.
But McDonough's testimony differs from Nienstedt's in another crucial respect: it undermines the archbishop's claim that McDonough advocated against keeping written records of conversations about accused clerics. In fact, he denied telling anyone not to document matters related to sexual abuse. Anderson asked whether the archbishop's recollection was correct, and McDonough said no. "First of all," McDonough explained, "[Nienstedt] and I would never have been in a position for much casual conversation. Archbishop Nienstedt managed largely by memo." Rather, he continued, "my tendency [when producing records] was to mentally invite Jeff Anderson into the office, presuming that I would be held accountable in the years ahead for my activity.... And you, by the way--I offer you as a compliment--were part of the imagination I had in that regard."
"Well, thank you for the compliment," Anderson replied.
That's not to say that McDonough favored all manner of record keeping. For example, his "general practice was not to compile lists" of accused priests. So in how did McDonough come up with the names of fifteen credibly accused priests, which he told local media about in 1998? "My own memory from accessing the files." The archdiocese recently released a list of credibly accused priests, which it later had to update after Minnesota Public Radio found it rather incomplete. Lists, according to McDonough, "are notoriously difficult to make accurate, and they imply clarity of information where clarity of information is nonexistent." He told Anderson that he regrets that he didn't believe Fr. Jerome Kern--accused of molesting ten minors--had abused children, "but I don't think Jerome Kern's name would have shown up on a list had we made a list."
If he had made a list, it might have ended up in the archdiocese's priest personnel files. Anderson tried to get some clarity about how those files are handled, where they're located, and who has access to them. But he kept asking in the present tense: "[The files] are maintained by whom?" for example. Every time that happened, McDonough took the opportunity to remind Anderson that hasn't worked in the chancery since 2008, so he doesn't really know how things are handled today. Following a long exchange over that question, McDonough explained that there are two sets of files: one called "the vault," which is in the chancery and accessible to "pretty much all the staff." Then there are the "disciplinary" or "restricted" files, kept under lock and key. But, he continued, "'restricted' is less a matter of who can see them and simply to have access to them one would have to go through another person, so one would not access them all by him- or herself. That's the reason. The restriction's not so much about who, it's simply about how, in my time. That's a nice tie, by the way."
The county attorney has ten active cases involving accused Twin Cities priests. McDonough's extensive knowledge of archdiocesan abuse policy--he quibbles with that term in the deposition because it sounds too much like "law," preferring "practice," but that objection amounts to a distinction without difference--makes him an obvious candidate for a police interview. But he's never talked to St. Paul Police. Anderson asked him about that, and McDonough claimed that the only contact he's received from the police was a letter two cops left for him while he was saying Mass back in December. He told Anderson that he turned it over to his lawyer, but then his lawyer interrupted--"Don't tell him what you told me."
What did the letter say? "I don't recall the content of the letter," McDonough said. Which is difficult to do when you can't even remember reading it, as McDonough also claimed. He did recall maybe informing the archdiocesan civil attorney, but couldn't summon what the two may have spoken about, if they spoke. Which he doesn't recall. Anderson wanted to know whether the police have been in touch since December. "There's been no further contact from St. Paul [Police]," McDonough answered.
Not according to a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. "In addition to the letter that is discussed in the deposition," Howie Padilla told me, "we have had at least two contacts with Fr. Kevin McDonough’s attorney. In the last of those contacts, we were told that Fr. McDonough was declining to meet with us." McDonough's lawyer didn't interrupt the deposition to offer that information. "If his position has changed," Padilla continued, "and he is now consenting to meet with our investigators, that would undoubtedly be welcome news."
McDonough also refused to cooperate with the task force established by Nienstedt to "investigate," as Anderson put it, archdiocesan abuse procedures following damning media reports on Frs. Wehmeyer and Shelley (more on that here). "I don't believe it was an...investigation, but rather an inventory of their practices," McDonough explained. He repeated that objection a few more times. "Well, let's call it an audit then. Do you want to call it an audit?" Anderson asked. "I call it a study," McDonough clarified. But whether study or audit or investigation, he would have no part of it. "From the beginning, I felt that there was a media frenzy about all this, some of it stirred up by inaccurate statements from yourself, [Mr. Anderson]." The documentation was enough, he said. And besides, the archbishop didn't order him to participate.
"What were you afraid of?" Anderson asked.
"I'm not afraid of much," McDonough answered.
Days before Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer was arrested, McDonough, then "delegate for safe environments," and Deacon John Vomastek drove to his parish and informed him that he was being removed from ministry because he had been accused of abusing children, and would have to leave the premises. McDonough said that he offered to take Wehmeyer to the police station to make a statement, but apparently he refused. He and Vomastek obtained Wehmeyer's computer and firearm and left with them.
Some critics have claimed their intervention amounted to interfering with a police investigation, the idea being that McDonough took the computer in order to make it impossible for the police to search it. But McDonough told Anderson that he and Vomastek actually had permission from the police to visit Wehmeyer--permission the deacon had obtained by phone on the drive over. And McDonough explained that he took the computer because he wanted to preserve the chain of evidence. In fact, McDonough claimed, he strenuously resisted the idea of making contact with Wehmeyer before the police knew about it. But at a meeting he was assured by archdiocesan colleagues--former canonical chancellor Jennifer Haselberger, then-vicar general Peter Laird, and civil chancellor Andrew Eisenzimmer--"that the police had been notified and we could proceed." That wasn't enough for McDonough, so he had Vomastek, himself a retired St. Paul cop, to make sure the police were informed about Wehmeyer. Anderson didn't ask why at that point McDonough didn't call the police himself.
McDonough said that he was told about Wehmeyer on Tuesday, which would have been June 19, 2012, and that he served him a canonical decree restricting his ministry the following day (McDonough mistakenly refers to it as a decree removing him as pastor). "Have the police been notified?" McDonough said he asked diocesan attorney Eisenzimmer. "He said, 'Yes, they have.'"
That undercuts Nienstedt's testimony. Under oath, he said that news of the Wehmeyer accusation "didn't come to us officially until June 22." If that was the case, Anderson asked, then why did the canonical decree opening an investigation read, "On June 18, 2012, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis received a complaint that Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer...supplied alcohol and sexually explicit images to a minor, and fondled or attempted to fondle the minor's genitals"? Nienstedt replied that Haselberger--who resigned last year in protest of the archdiocese's handling of accused priests--had drafted the memo, but that she was mistaken about the date the archdiocese received the report. Yet "Given on June 20" appears on the decree--above Nienstedt's signature.
The timing of these events matters because civil authorities are investigating whether archdiocesan personnel were in violation of mandatory reporting law. State law requires certain people to notify the authorities "immediately"--within twenty-four hours--after they receive information that leads them to suspect child abuse. There is an e-mail record that shows Vomastek contacted the police on June 20. So county prosecutors declined to charge the archdiocese or its staff with failing to report suspected child abuse, but that was before they knew about the decree Nienstedt signed. The case has since been reopened. And Haselberger confirmed to me that the St. Paul Police Department is in possession of a June 19 e-mail exchange between Eisenzimmer and her in which they discussed drafting the Wehmeyer decree.
Before Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer was jailed for molesting children and possessing child pornography, he had acted out sexually with adults in ways that worried his superiors so much that he was sent away for counseling. McDonough knew that he had a history of sexual misconduct with adults, but when Wehmeyer was up for promotion to pastor McDonough opposed the idea of informing parish staff of his past. That would be the parish where he abused the sons of an employee.
Wehmeyer had propositioned two young men, possibly aged nineteen or twenty, at a bookstore. A friend of the men took their statements and gave them to McDonough, who promised to deal with it. Later, when he learned that his fifteen-year-old son had gone on a youth-group outing with Wehmeyer, he let McDonough have a piece of his mind. Wasn't this a warning sign, Anderson asked? Not that Wehmeyer was a threat to children, McDonough said. He was a man struggling with homosexual attraction. McDonough also dismissed that man's concerns as vaguely homophobic. "Patrick shared with a lot of people in the Catholic Church concerns about homosexuality." He "did not like the idea of there being gay men in the priesthood."
Later, when a police officer notified McDonough that he'd seen Wehmeyer loitering at popular gay cruising spot, he chalked that up to sexual-identity struggles too. But that also didn't shift his opinion about informing parish staff about Wehmeyer's troubled past. What about Wehmeyer's diagnosis as a sex addict? McDonough didn't recall reading the report from the clinic where Wehmeyer received counseling. What about the DUI arrest? News to McDonough. What about restrictions on ministering to youth? "I don't recall the restriction."
"I never believed that Curtis Wehmeyer was a danger to kids," McDonough testified. "I'm sorry I didn't believe that, I wish I'd believed it, I wish I could have acted on that. I did not believe it." That "remained my conviction until I learned differently, sadly, terribly tragically."
But couldn't that conviction have been altered if he'd looked at Wehmeyer's file? "You didn't bother to go back and look at what was reflected in the file about his history?" Anderson asked.
"I think what I testified is that I don't recall whether I did or not," McDonough replied.