Archdiocese compliant with settlement, pledges ongoing collaboration

By Maria Wiering
Catholic Spirit
December 20, 2016

A Ramsey County court judge commended the collaboration between the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office at a Dec. 20 hearing on the archdiocese’s efforts to fulfill a year-old settlement agreement to enhance policies to protect children from abuse.

The hearing was the second time the archdiocese appeared in court to report on its progress after entering into the agreement with the county last December.

“I hope the next six of the reviews go as well as the first two, because then we know that there’s been that change” said Judge Teresa Warner, speaking about the archdiocese’s efforts and the positive working relationship it has with the county attorney.

Joseph Dixon, an attorney of Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis who represents the archdiocese, presented the judge with the archdiocese’s 28-page report demonstrating substantial compliance with the settlement agreement. Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ring concurred that the archdiocese was substantially compliant.

Warner stated that she had reviewed an advance copy and agreed. She said that when the archdiocese and county entered into the agreement a year ago, she thought its implementation timeline seemed aggressive, which spoke to both parties’ dedication to enhancing the archdiocese’s child protection policies.

“We cannot undo what’s happened, but we certainly can go forward and do what you can to protect children so that no one associated with the archdiocese hurts a child again,” she said.

As part of the agreement, Ramsey County has oversight of the archdiocese’s efforts until 2020.

Work remains as the archdiocese continues to comply with the agreement, Warner said.

“For the next several years it’s going to be the North Star, the guiding principle,” she said. “It’s there for the right reasons.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda attended the hearing with Dixon, Tim O’Malley and Janell Rasmussen, the archdiocese’s director and deputy director, respectively, of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment.

O’Malley and Rasmussen provided an overview of the archdiocese’s policies and implementation to the judge. Archbishop Hebda thanked Warner and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for “helping us set the right goals” and presenting them to the public.

Following the hearing, Archbishop Hebda said the archdiocese was committed to continued collaboration with Ramsey County. Going forward, he said, the archdiocese needs to give the same energy to child protection efforts that it has over the past months.

“It’s an ongoing project, especially as we bring new people, new volunteers, new staff into our parishes, schools and seminaries,” he said. “We want to make sure they have that same commitment that we have.”

He hoped Catholics see that the archdiocese is dedicated to the settlement agreement and is working to regain trust, he said. He also hoped victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse receive “a level of reassurance that we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure that their experience is not repeated.”

The archdiocese last reported on its progress in July, six months after settling a civil petition Ramsey County had filed against it in June 2015 related to the case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who was convicted of sexually abusing three boys at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul.

The settlement included an agreement with child protection measures the archdiocese had already implemented or promised to implement. In July, Ramsey County also dropped related criminal charges it had filed against the archdiocese, and the parties extended the period of Ramsey County’s oversight.

O’Malley, who oversees all of the archdiocese’s safe environment efforts, told The Catholic Spirit that the settlement agreement gave the archdiocese the opportunity “not only to do better in creating safe environments throughout the archdiocese, but also the opportunity to prove ourselves.”

“We want Ramsey County to hold us accountable,” he said. “We share their goals. Everybody wants children to be safe. By scrutinizing our actions and sharing their expertise, Ramsey County helps make us better, and in turn, keep children safe.”

The archdiocese’s revised policies include those for visiting clergy, whistle-blowers and evidence handling when there is an accusation of sexual abuse. Codes of conduct have also been updated. Policies are accessible at a website launched Dec. 20, All policies will continue to be reviewed and updated, Rasmussen said.

The Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment ensures parish and school compliance with annual audits conducted by the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, which O’Malley oversees, and requires clergy and adults who work with children and vulnerable adults to fulfill the “essential three”: completing a background check, attending VIRTUS safe environment training and signing a code of conduct.

If a clergy member, parish or school is out of compliance, parish or school trustees are notified, and non-complying lay individuals are prohibited from working with children. Non-compliant priests would be prohibited from all ministry.

While first-year policy requirements were met by Dec. 20, other aspects of the settlement, including components of a restorative justice initiative, will be completed in 2017 or are ongoing.

Jeri Bosivert, a Ministerial Review Board member whose family member was a victim of clergy sexual abuse, called the archdiocese’s work “rock solid” and that “the trajectory is extremely positive.”

She emphasized the importance of the diversity of feedback the archdiocese has sought while revising its policies, “to make sure the policies are clear and real.”

“There have been huge strides in terms of clarity, in terms of process,” said Bosivert, 67, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. “I would not be engaged in this if this was just window dressing.”

The archdiocese also promised in the settlement to work toward restorative justice with clergy sexual abuse victims through one-on-one meetings with Archbishop Hebda and a large-group conference. O’Malley said the conference’s planning is complicated by the archdiocese’s bankruptcy, yet archdiocesan leaders have been consulting academic and professional experts in the field, as well as clergy sexual abuse victims.

O’Malley said he is grateful for everyone who has contributed to improving the archdiocese’s policies and procedures and their implementation, including priests, safe environment coordinators, parish leaders and victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The archdiocese is scheduled to appear in court for its next six-month report June 16, 2017.


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