MN--SNAP: Duluth bishop involved in disturbing St. Paul case

By Verne Wagner
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests
June 9, 2015

On Friday, the St. Paul archdiocese was charged with six offenses. They stem from accusations that top church officials ignored or hid suspicions and actual reports of sexual misdeeds by a now-convicted predator priest.

Duluth’s current bishop was involved in this alarming case. At this point, no Catholic staff person faces individual charges. But we hope that changes. But Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said there was "a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the archdiocese... over the course of decades."

And Choi said his investigation is “on-going.” So it’s crucial that more victims, witnesses and whistleblowers keep stepping forward with information or suspicions about clergy sex crimes and cover up anywhere in Minnesota.

We hope prosecutors will pursue Duluth Bishop Paul Sirba for his role in this disturbing crimes of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer and other Twin Cities abuse cover ups. 

According to records – from the church and the St. Paul prosecutor, a priest was concerned about Fr. Wehmeyer’s actions around kids. Here’s how Commonweal, a respected national Catholic publication, reports the story:

“(That priest) contacted the vicar general, then-Fr. Paul Sirba, to see whether he had been in touch with the mother of the boys who camped with Wehmeyer. If Sirba didn’t, he would, the priest warned. Sirba said he would speak with her.

In a September 29, 2009, memo, Sirba informed (Archbishop John) Nienstedt of Wehmeyer’s DUI charge. He explained that Wehmeyer had been under the supervision of the Clergy Review Board, Tim Rourke (the POMS monitor), and his therapist. Nienstedt replied that in fact Wehmeyer was not being supervised by the Clergy Review Board or Rourke. In a memo sent the next day, Sirba told Nienstedt that Wehmeyer “has not been faithful to the program,” and that Bishop (Lee) Piché suggested he speak with (Fr. Kevin) McDonough about the case, because he had worked with Wehmeyer about sexual-boundary issues before. Sirba reported that he was waiting for a return call from McDonough. Prosecutors found no evidence that McDonough replied.

In October, Wehmeyer phoned Nienstedt to apologize for the DUI. Nienstedt wrote in a memo that the cleric seemed repentant. He determined that “this had been a good lesson” for Wehmeyer, and took no disciplinary action against him. Nienstedt would later testify that he never saw the police report, and that no one told him Wehmeyer had been trying to pick up teenagers. He did not read Wehmeyer’s court-ordered chemical health assessment until June 2012—three years after the incident.

Sirba still had not contacted the mother of boys Wehmeyer took camping. The priest who first brought the issue to Sirba again urged him to speak with her. Sirba said he would. But first he went to the diocesan attorney, Andrew Eisenzimmer, who advised him to take the matter seriously. Eisenzimmer suggested Sirba loop in Fr. Eugene Tiffany, director of the Office of Priestly Life and Ministry.

On October 27, 2009, Sirba confronted Wehmeyer. He admitted to camping with one of the boys, but denied that anything untoward had happened. Sirba chided him—the trip was inappropriate and could cause scandal. Wehmeyer promised that it wouldn’t happen again, and suggested Sirba contact the mother, who would confirm that she had approved the trip.

Sirba spoke with her about a week later. He told St. Paul Police that the two discussed Wehmeyer’s perceived “boundary violations,” “helping father to set boundaries,” “prudence,” and “not giving anyone reason to be concerned.” On Sirba’s telling, the point of the conversation was inform the mother that caution must be observed so as not to imperil Wehmeyer’s status as a priest—or the safety of children. That isn’t how the mother recalls the conversation. She told investigators that Sirba was mainly concerned with protecting Wehmeyer’s image as a priest.”

Less than two months later, in December 2009, Sirba was named bishop of Duluth.

Keep in mind that now-Bishop Sirba was a St. Paul archdiocesan priest for roughly 22 years. He was raised in Bloomington, Minn., and attended Nativity of Mary Grade School, the Academy of the Holy Angels, the College of St. Thomas, and the St. Paul Seminary. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. Paul Seminary (and was later on staff there). For a while, in 2009, he was the archdiocese’s vicar general and moderator of the curia, both high-ranking posts.

So we strongly suspect that Sirba played a role in hiding other clergy sex crimes in the Twin Cities.

We hope St. Paul prosecutors will continue to pursue charges against Catholic officials – individually and collectively – with real vigor. We hope that they will be just as aggressive whether the church staffer is still in the Twin Cities or has been promoted or re-assigned.

We hope Duluth police and prosecutors will study the evidence of Twin Cities cover ups carefully – in both Choi’s indictment and in mainstream news accounts – and pay close attention to Sirba’s actions. A tiger doesn’t change his stripes. Whatever Sirba did in St. Paul he’s probably doing in Duluth.

And we hope Duluth law enforcement officials will treat with considerable skepticism any claims Sirba makes or has made about clergy sex crimes and cover ups over the past six years in Duluth.

Finally, we hope that anyone who has seen, suspected or suffered clergy sex crimes or cover ups in the Duluth area will call police, prosecutors, therapists or our group. It’s important to speak out and protect kids. But it’s important to seek out independent sources of help. So please call secular authorities not church officials.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.