Brothers sexually assaulted by priest for 3 years sue Vatican because Church did nothing to stop it
May 22, 2019
Three brothers who were sexually abused by a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Vatican.
They claim that the Holy See bears responsibility because the case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States.
The lawsuit, that includes two other accusers as plaintiffs, attempts to trace a direct line from clergy sex abuse victims to the Vatican, through Minnesota church officials.
Luke, Stephen and Ben Hoffman were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, roughly between 2009 and 2012. They want the names of agents involved in the cover-up, including priests, revealed and for the Vatican to stop internally reviewing cases.
The new lawsuit seeks monetary damages, but the plaintiffs said truth is the goal.
The plaintiffs ask for ‘$75,000, plus costs, disbursements, reasonable attorneys’ fees, interest, and such other relief that the Court deems just and equitable’.
Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and child pornography in connection with his contact with two of the boys, who were 12 and 14.
The brothers were not initially named but chose to go public as they accused Holy See described as ‘directly and solely responsible for removing superiors of religious orders, bishops, archbishops and cardinals from service in the various divisions and offices of the Catholic Church’.
They claim that the Church has kept secret the identities and records of more than 3,400 clergy accused of sexual abuse, including some top church officials.
The men are asking the court to require the Vatican to make the information public and report all alleged crimes to law enforcement worldwide.
The plaintiffs ‘were harmed as a result of the Defendant Holy See’s practice and policy of not reporting suspected child abuse to law enforcement officials,’ according to the lawsuit filed in US federal court in the state of Minnesota.
‘Holy See’s practices of retaining, hiding, and concealing evidence of crimes of its agents and former agents has endangered numerous children and continues to put children in peril,’ it added.
A week ago, Pope Francis issued a landmark decree making bishops directly accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up and requiring clerics to report any cases to Church superiors.
But the new law stops short of requiring the crimes to be reported to police, and abuse victims and their advocates say it’s not enough since it essentially tasks discredited bishops who have mishandled abuse for decades with policing their own.
‘I have too many nieces and nephews to let something like this happen to anybody else,’ Stephen Hoffman said about his decision to come forward.
He said the suit’s intention is to ‘let something like this never happen anymore’.
‘I don’t want anyone to go through what I and my brothers went through… I just want the Vatican to do what’s right,’ he said at a Tuesday press conference.
Nienstedt and the former ambassador the US, Carlo Maria Viganò, have previously denied the allegations raised in the lawsuit. The Vatican’s US lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, had no immediate comment. In the past Lena has described sex abuse lawsuits against the Vatican as publicity stunts.
Another plaintiff, 51-year-old Jim Keenan, said he was assaulted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s by former Minnesota priest Thomas Adamson whose actions were documented in secret by the church.
‘I come forward today to sue the Pope and the Vatican, because it needs to stop. They are not above us,’ he told reporters.
The fifth plaintiff, Manuel Vega, was molested by former priest Fidencio Silva-Flores in California sometime between 1978 to 1984.
He said he was one of 30 victims of a Mexican priest who he believes returned to his home country after being accused of abuse in the US.
‘He is nowhere to be found,’ the 53-year-old said. ‘From what I heard, he is somewhere in Mexico, or in Spain, still practicing, still dangerous.’
Silva-Flores was charged with 25 counts of child molestation in 2003 but never tried. As of 2002, Silva-Flores was working in a church in Mexico, according to the lawsuit.
Adamson, who faced accusations of years of abuse and was removed from the priesthood, died recently.
Wehmeyer pleaded guilty in 2012 to 20 criminal counts against him stemming from the sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
The two plaintiffs named alongside the Hoffman brothers sued the Vatican separately within the last year, but attorney Jeff Anderson withdrew their cases in anticipation of Tuesday’s lawsuit. Anderson had also sued the Vatican on two prior occasions without success.
Anderson said he believes the new lawsuit is stronger because he’s made a more complete effort to document Vatican authority over Catholic clerics and to portray the church as a commercial enterprise. The Hoffman brothers’ involvement also allowed him to bring in issues surrounding Nienstedt, which he says are emblematic of how church leaders have covered up abuse.
‘The body of evidence and the scope of the complaint is much broader and much more developed than the first time we litigated this,’ Anderson said.
Because it has the status of a foreign nation, the Vatican is generally exempt from lawsuits in the United States. Exceptions to the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act include wrongful acts committed against US citizens and commercial activities undertaken by foreign nations.
The lawsuit asks for court orders requiring the Vatican to turn over names of ‘credibly accused’ priests whose cases have been referred to the Holy See, along with related records.
In 2014, the Vatican reported that since 2004, more than 3,400 cases of abuse worldwide had been referred directly to Rome. According to the Vatican, 3,420 clergy involved in those cases were removed from ministry, but their names and cases have never been made public, the lawsuit said.
The Vatican figures may not capture the full picture. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has indicated that more than 6,000 clerics in the United States alone have been accused of sexual abuse of minors between 1950 and 2016.
Ben Hoffman said the church needs to be more transparent and ‘live in the truth.’
‘I’m still Catholic. I have a deep love for the church. I have a deep love for my faith, it means the world to me. But the Vatican – we have to fix this,’ he said, his eyes watering.
Internal church documents show that church leaders knew Wehmeyer had engaged in sexual misconduct when they promoted him in 2009. The behavior included at least two occasions when Wehmeyer solicited men for sex. Yet, church leaders did not warn Wehmeyer’s parishioners about his past.
Before the Hoffman brothers were abused, church officials received complaints about Wehmeyer’s inappropriate sexual activities. In 2004, he was cited for loitering in a Minnesota park known as a place to meet for anonymous sex, and he lied to police about his identity, the lawsuit says.
Wehmeyer was later evaluated at a treatment center for troubled priests and diagnosed with a sexual disorder. The archbishop at the time, Harry Flynn, moved him from West St. Paul to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and assigned him to administrative duties.
But in 2009, about the time Wehmeyer started abusing the Hoffman brothers, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor. According to the lawsuit, another archdiocesan official cautioned Nienstedt – then newly installed as archbishop – about the promotion and informed him of Wehmeyer’s record, to no avail.
Over the next three years, Wehmeyer abused the Hoffman brothers, who were in their mid-teens, during camping trips.
After the boys’ mother reported the abuse of at least two of her sons to police, Wehmeyer was arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.
Wehmeyer’s arrest led local prosecutors to file criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failing to protect children. It also led to the resignation of Nienstedt in 2015, who came under fire for his handling of Wehmeyer’s case at a time when his own sexual behavior was under scrutiny.
Nienstedt was investigated following credible allegations that he engaged in misconduct and harassment, then retaliated when his advances were rejected.
The archdiocese retained a law firm to look into his supervision of Wehmeyer. The investigation alleged Nienstedt had sexually harassed priests and seminarians.
A July 2014 church memo raised concerns that Nienstedt’s ‘social relationship’ with Wehmeyer had clouded his judgment.
Controversy surrounding Nienstedt escalated when a priest involved in the investigation wrote a memo saying that Viganò ordered church officials to end the inquiry and instructed them to destroy a letter they wrote to him objecting to his directive.
Viganò flatly denied those allegations in a statement last year. ‘I never told anyone that (the law firm) should stop the inquiry, and I never ordered any document be destroyed,’ he said. ‘Any statement to the contrary is false.’
Nienstedt, who is not a defendant in the case, also denies the allegations, calling them ‘entirely false’.
In a response to emailed questions from the AP on Tuesday, Nienstedt said his interaction with Wehmeyer was in the context of archbishop to priest.
‘During my time as Archbishop, I was made aware of some challenges Wehmeyer was facing, but was not made aware that he may be inappropriately or illegally involved with minors,’ Nienstedt wrote. He said that as archbishop, he ensured Wehmeyer was complying with conditions placed on him, including attending counseling.
Nienstedt wrote that Wehmeyer was being supervised and doing what was asked of him, and the decision to promote him was made in consultation with others.
‘I would never knowingly cover up clergy sexual abuse,’ Nienstedt wrote.
Nienstedt also said he’s unaware of a final report that came out of the investigation into him, but he reiterated that even though the allegations are false, he directed that the investigation be carried out, as he would have done for any other priest.
His successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, said last December that the Vatican suspended the investigation when Nienstedt resigned. And while Nienstedt remains in good standing with the Vatican, Hebda has forbidden him from exercising public ministry in his archdiocese.
The charges were dropped in 2016 when the archdiocese admitted wrongdoing and agreed to meet with victims and adopt stronger measures to prevent clergy abuse.
Allegations of rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests and subsequent cover-ups by bishops exploded onto the world stage in 2002. The scandals have cost the church billions of dollars and undercut its moral authority.
Not all the names have been released. But several U.S. dioceses in recent months have identified former bishops, priests and deacons who were accused of sexually abusing children.
In the United States, state and federal authorities have been investigating how the church handled decades of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, and at least nine sexual abuse lawsuits have named the Vatican as a defendant in recent years. Two other cases filed this year in Guam and Washington are in early stages.
Many other cases were dismissed due to a lack of jurisdiction as it is difficult in US courts to sue a foreign state like the Vatican.