Working to better things from the inside out is this clergy abuse survivor’s goal
By Rubén Rosario
St. Paul Pioneer Press
January 27, 2020
|Jim Richter with his pet schnauzer, Charlie. Richter is a member of the Ministerial Review Board, an 11-member confidential and advisory volunteer body that looks into priest sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior of all kinds and makes recommendations to current Archbishop Bernard Hebda.|
Jim Richter, a Chicago native and pathologist, wanted a fresh start when he moved to the Twin Cities five years ago. After being sexually abused in his teens by a Catholic parish priest who similarly molested other members of his family as well as scores of others, the last thing he wanted to hear again were more clergy abuse scandals.
As he told an audience that attended a restorative justice and healing conference last Thursday in Lake Elmo, his abuse still affects him in some way “every day of my life.” The most intimate and longest-lasting relationship he has had in his life following his abuse, he added with a bit of a quip in his voice, has been Charlie, his 18-year old schnauzer. Trust in people is hard.
He unknowingly arrived in the midst of public revelations — mostly and thankfully through former church canonical affairs lawyer and whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger — that then-Archbishop John Nienstedt and other higher-ups grossly mishandled the case of then-St. Paul Blessed Sacrament pastor Curtis Wehmeyer.
Wehmeyer was ultimately sent to prison for molesting three adolescent sons of a mother of nine who worked at the church. Officials knew of inappropriate sex-related behavior beforehand but did nothing about it. He was actually promoted to pastor.
There were the mounting lawsuits from hundreds of victim/survivors from previous cases, the $210 million settlement three years later with the victims, bankruptcy proceedings and a court-monitored settlement agreement between the church and Ramsey County prosecutors in lieu of criminal and civil charges that will be the subject of a final court hearing Tuesday.
Welcome to the Twin Cities, Mr. Richter.
“Here I am in a new city, listening to the same story,” Richter, 48, recalled during a recent chat. “I was so angry. It was a trigger. It did retraumatize. It was incredulous to me that in 2015 there were secret bank accounts, priests being moved around, stories of abuse regarding Wehmeyer, bishops denying things are going on while people inside the church were saying things were a mess.”
So, instead of being repulsed again and not wanting anything to do with the church he grew up in, Richter did just the opposite: he reached for the phone and called the archdiocese to see if there was any way he could help.
His inquiry led to joining a year later the revamped Ministerial Review Board, an 11-member confidential and advisory volunteer body that looks into priest sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior of all kinds and makes recommendations to current Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
Four years later, Richter, who also runs a monthly victim/survivor support group outside of the church, is now the board’s vice-chair. Members sign confidentiality agreements and are prohibited from disclosing details of cases outside of church staff and board members. The names of the board members are not public, although that might change.
But Richter, who tongue-in-cheek describes himself as a “foul-mouthed, irreverent Catholic,” agreed to talk a bit about his work with the board and his cautious but insider optimistic conviction that the current archdiocese leadership has been on the right track in enacting serious and sincere reform and accountability.
“It’s like, do you want to be on the outside or do you want to be on the inside?” Richter told me. “There are advantages to both. But I reached a point in my life where I needed to make a contribution. Being angry was not going to be helpful.”
Six of the board members are lay Catholics from various professions. A priest, a deacon and a nun serve on the board. Six are men, five are women. Richert is the lone victim/survivor although another member has a relative who was a victim of clergy sex abuse.
The revamping, which took place following the fall of 2014 appointment of former Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension chief Tim O’Malley as director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, first tackled the backlog of what Richert describes as the “creep” files. They comprised mostly old cases of priests, many of them deceased, involved in child sex abuse that had led to the lawsuits, criminal case, defrocking, settlements and the bankruptcy decision.
O’Malley’s hiring came several months before Nienstedt resigned in the wake of the Wehmeyer debacle.
Although details are hard to come by, the board, which meets every other month, has reviewed 77 alleged misconduct and other cases in the past five years. Most range from drinking, gambling and financial improprieties to adultery and porn addictions. Recommendations were made to remove five priests from public ministry — two involving sex misconduct involving a minor, two involving an adult victim, and one due to financial improprieties. Police and prosecutors investigated but declined to press charges in four of the cases. One case led to criminal charges involving an adult female victim that resulted in an acquittal after trial. Four were ordered removed, although they remain priests. The priest acquitted after trial left the priesthood.
Richter believes in the process and dismisses criticism that the MRB is just window dressing to meet the conditions of the court-monitored settlement. He understands Hebda has final say on the board’s recommendations and could rule against them, though Richter says that has not happened since he began working on the board.
“I would tell (Hebda), if he was sitting right there, don’t waste my (expletive) time because, if you don’t care what I think, you should find someone else,” he said. “But I genuinely, authentically believe there is a commitment to limit the opportunity for harm, to hopefully serve up justice, and to create policies and procedures to make the culture better.
“If I did not believe in that,” Richter added, “I’ll leave.”
A notable member of the board willing to speak publicly, someone Richter knew nothing about until he came here, is also a supporter.
“We want to make sure that these people are in places where they may get help and never get to harm again,” said Patty Wetterling. Her son, Jacob, then 11, was abducted at gunpoint in 1989. The mystery about his fate and her advocacy on the plight of missing and sexually exploited children changed laws and practices. The case was tragically solved three years ago when a convicted child pornographer and suspected child molester confessed to killing the boy within hours of his abduction.
The cases she, Richter and others have reviewed since she joined the board two years ago have been emotionally draining. In some cases, the priests accused of wrongdoing appear before the board to plead their case.
“There are some cases where there have been false accusations and my heart just breaks for those people because once you’ve been charged with that it’s very hard to redeem yourself,” said Wetterling, who is one of two non-Catholics who serve on the board.
Like Richert, she knows of other members of diocese MRBs across the country that have expressed dissatisfaction with the ways things are running in their areas.
She praises Hebda, among others. The archdiocese has a link on its website identifying priests that have been credibly accused of child sex abuse and other crimes.
“He’s open, honest and wants to do the right thing,” Wetterling said. “I respect the church for doing this. If every institution did this, we would not have a recidivism rate. We would not have somebody who went from school to school, corporate position to another position of power.”
Frank Meuers is one of those child clergy abuse victims who, unlike Richter, will never step foot inside a Catholic church again. He’s director of the local chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).
He can tell you tell tales about being kicked out of the chancery when he dared to bring in an alleged child victim of rape years ago to report the crime. He continues to harangue the leadership for not doing enough to bring to justice a well-known church higher-up who he and others feel enabled or covered up the abuses.
He remembers reaching out to O’Malley and during a meeting warning him that Meuers was going to be, in his words, “your worst nightmare.” Most of the members of the support group he presides over have left the Catholic Church.
And yet, last Friday, Meuers showed up at the church-sponsored event to share his feelings.
Like a rock thrown into a pond, he told the audience, abuse sinks but the ripples continue to affect the secondary victims like spouses and family members.
“Even though I’m not an insider, I hope that somehow I can turn this into a positive instead of sitting back and sniping and attacking,” he told me about his willingness to take part in such events. “I’ve heard from national (SNAP) the ‘What are you doing? Why are you sitting down with the enemy?’
“But the steps they (the archdiocese) have taken, I believe, have been wonderful,” he added. “I believe no one else that I know of is doing this.”