Cover-up of Clergy Sex Abuse Goes Back Six Decades
By Madeleine Baran
Minnesota Public Radio
September 16, 2014
Efforts by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to cover up clergy sex abuse stretch back to at least the 1950s — a decade earlier than previously revealed, according to documents released today by victims' attorneys.
The archdiocese file on the Rev. Louis Heitzer shows that bishops used now-familiar strategies to protect Heitzer from prosecution nearly six decades ago. During the 1950s and 60s, four bishops failed to notify police of allegations that Heitzer sexually abused several boys. Instead, the archbishops transferred Heitzer to 14 parishes over his 27-year career.
The 152 pages, released as part of a clergy sex abuse lawsuit that accuses the archdiocese of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusers private, raise questions about how long Catholic leaders in the Twin Cities have covered up abuse.
Memos and letters show a pattern of secrecy by Archbishop John Murray, who served as the third archbishop of St. Paul from 1931 to 1956, Archbishop William Brady, who served from 1956 to 1961, Archbishop Leo Binz, who served from 1961 to 1975, and Coadjutor Archbishop Leo Byrne, who served from 1967 to 1974.
The previously confidential documents reveal a world in which church leaders protected priests who sexually abused children and downplayed complaints from parents and their children, while victims suffered in silence without the aid of support groups or therapy.
Heitzer, a German immigrant who died in 1969, spent less than a year at most parishes before bishops quietly sent him elsewhere. In a 2002 letter, then-vicar general Kevin McDonough described Heitzer as "perhaps the most abusive priest ever to be a part of this Archdiocese. I now believe that he abused boys every place he went."
In December 2013, Archbishop John Nienstedt included Heitzer on a court-ordered list of priests "credibly accused" of sexually abusing children. Nienstedt claimed that Heitzer was "permanently removed from ministry" in 1969. The documents released today show that the church never removed Heitzer from ministry for more than a few weeks. In the months leading up to his death in 1969, Heitzer had been working as a nursing home chaplain in Ivanhoe, Minn.
In a statement released Tuesday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens acknowledged that the archdiocese failed to include Heitzer's complete list of parish assignments when it posted the information online last year. The original posting, which was altered in the past few hours, said that Heitzer's last assignment was in 1967. The revised list includes three additional assignments from 1967 to 1969 but still claims that Heitzer was "permanently removed" from ministry in 1969.
Interim Archdiocese communications director Anne Steffens said in an email that the archdiocese will change how it describes the status of priests listed on its website.
"When we began releasing these names on our website last year, we noticed people wanted to know the status of the offending priest, so we came up with three categories: in ministry, temporarily removed from ministry, and permanently removed from ministry. Those were the categories we used as part of our template for the website," she said. "We're going to go back and change the template to make it more clear."
Heitzer's file includes typewritten documents and handwritten notes from church leaders that rely on euphemisms and vague phrases to refer to the priest's alleged sexual assault of children. "Information has come to me concerning a repetition of your conduct with boys that was the occasion of your transfer from other parishes on several instances," then-archbishop Murray wrote in a letter to Heitzer on Sept. 27, 1955. Other documents refer to Heitzer's abuse as "the problem" or "circumstances."