Judge sees progress in St. Paul Archdiocese’s child protection

By Tory Cooney
Pioneer Press
December 20, 2016

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

[with pdf]

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis remains on track with its agreement to protect children from sex abuse, a Ramsey County District judge said Tuesday morning.

Archdiocese and Ramsey County officials reached a settlement in December 2015 calling for an “aggressive” timeline to implement “substantial” cultural changes after allegations of sex abuse by a priest, Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner said. The Catholic archdiocese was accused of turning a blind eye toward repeated misconduct in the case.

“There’s no doubt the reason for this settlement is to protect our children,” Warner said. “For the next several years, it’s going to be our North Star, the guiding principle. It’s a good agreement and it’s there for the right reasons.”

Requirements include a new child-protection plan and protocols such as mandatory reporting of abuse. All adult volunteers and clergy must also undergo background checks, child-protection training and sign codes of conduct.

The 187 parishes, 92 schools and two seminaries that belong to the archdiocese are required to comply with the settlement as well, said Janell Rasmussen, the archdiocese’s deputy director of ministerial standards and safe environment. Each has its own coordinator who undergoes additional safe environment training to serve as an “on-site expert” and monitor the enforcement of child-protection policies.

To date, nearly 90,000 adults have undergone background checks and training and are required to repeat the process every three years. In 2016, about 7,500 adults underwent training, Rasmussen said.

“So we have 90,000 sets of eyes and ears out there watching to make sure kids are safe,” director of ministerial standards and safe environment Timothy O’Malley said.


Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who attended the hearing along with Rasmussen and O’Malley, completed his own child-protection training in accordance with the new policies — including a recent online training update that addressed how to recognize the signs of abuse, he said.

“I was really happy to see this is what our people throughout the archdiocese are receiving,” Hebda said. “It really just raises the bar in terms of our attentiveness to the issues that are there. It’s certainly a huge undertaking.”

The Ramsey County attorney’s office and Warner found the archdiocese to be in “significant compliance” with the settlement. The county attorney’s office has been monitoring how the archdiocese followed through on its commitments.

The settlement neither required the attorney’s office to do the extra legwork to ensure the archdiocese’s compliance nor required the archdiocese cooperate to the additional oversight measures — but both willingly went beyond the base requirements, Warner said.

Warner also said that she is pleased with the archdiocese’s acknowledgement that while it is in compliance, its work is not yet complete.


In the future, the archdiocese intends to hold restorative justice sessions with the victims of abuse, which is intended to bring healing. However, leaders acknowledge that they can’t rush that process and must continue working toward systemic change and gain the trust of victims.

Even some of the survivors who have worked with archdiocesan leaders on the development of policies remain “cautious but hopeful” as they see those changes beginning to take effect, O’Malley said.

“We are so indebted to those people who have been hurt by the church and have stepped forward to help us shape our policies and prompted us to be to be much more attentive to their needs and the importance of creating a safe environment,” Hebda said. “That can’t be easy.”

Those survivors have changed how the archdiocese, as well as other churches and schools, prevent sexual abuse and approach allegations, he said.

“The victims and survivors of abuse are in my prayers daily and I promise to continue to do all I can to make sure we honor their request that we never let this happen again,” he said in a written statement. “I am grateful how they have made sure our decisions and actions are transparent and we are held accountable.”


The settlement calls for reviews every six months for three years; the third review is scheduled for June 16. In addition, the archdiocese must retain an independent firm to conduct annual compliance audits, to be given to the Ramsey County attorney’s office and made public.

Criminal charges against the archdiocese over its handling of a child sexual-abuse case were dropped in July after a public admission of wrongdoing.

The bankruptcy case involving the archdiocese is still pending in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Minnesota. A judge is expected to decide how information on the plans should be sent to creditors — including clergy sex-abuse victims — for review early next year.

“I think there’s still a lot of work that the archdiocese needs to do to build trust and credibility with the community and with survivors,” said Mike Finnegan, a lawyer for the abuse survivors. “I don’t think they’ve done that yet with the bankruptcy case. I think there’s a lot work to be done.”



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