Lawyers demand North Dakota Catholic dioceses 'end cover-up of clergy abuse,' release files

By Patrick Springer
March 4, 2020

Tim O'Keeffe, Mike Bryant and Tatum O'Brien discuss a report detailing the assignments of priests the Catholic church has identified as having been accused of sexual abuse during a news conference on Wednesday, March 4, at the O’Keeffe O’Brien Lyson Foss Law offices in downtown Fargo.
Photo by David Samson

[with video]

Lawyers representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and other clerics released a report detailing the assignments of priests the church has identified as having been accused of sexual abuse and demanded the public release of church files.

The lawyers provided information about the church assignments of 53 priests, deacons and others who face substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in a news conference on Wednesday, March 4. The Catholic dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck had released the names of the priests and others in January, but did not share details about which parishes they had served.

The church has a responsibility to release "files pertinent to the histories of each perpetrator to the public and law enforcement," the lawyers said. Failure to do so, they added, will make the Catholic dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck "complicit in concealing this hazard."

"There's still potential dangers to children," said Michael Bryant, a lawyer from Waite Park, Minn., who spoke at the news conference. "That's what we're trying to prevent."

Also, Bryant said, based on reports they have received, more priests than the 53 named publicly were abusing victims.

"We believe there are more names," which means children could be at risk, he said. "For those reasons it's important to keep pushing forward on this."

The Bismarck and Fargo dioceses issued a joint statement outlining steps they're taking to ensure safety. "These policies include criminal background checks of all Church personnel who work with or around children, and training of clergy, employees, volunteers, and parents regarding safe environment practices," the statement said.

"The dioceses also cooperate with outside auditors to annually conduct an audit to assess whether the dioceses comply with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002," the statement added. "The results of these audits are published every year."

To compile the 80-page list of parish assignments for the accused priests, five staff working for the lawyers combed through church directories to identify where and when the clerics worked, a painstaking process that took four or five weeks. In Minnesota, Bryant said, dioceses voluntarily made that information public.

Bryant and lawyers Tim O'Keeffe and Tatum O'Brien of Fargo called on North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to investigate the files of priests within the Fargo and Bismarck dioceses "to determine the full breadth and depth of the Dioceses' knowledge and cover-up of clergy abuse."

"The files contain a lot of information," O'Keeffe said. That information is important for victims and the public to have.

On Wednesday, Stenehjem said at least four investigators have been examining records and other evidence regarding the allegations.

"The bishops, who I met with last summer, have been very forthcoming," Stenehjem said. His office is investigating possible criminal charges, not only against priests and other perpetrators, but also any church officials who failed to notify authorities of suspected abuse.

"That's something we're looking into," Stenehjem said, referring to possible charges involving negligence in reporting abuse.

A public report laying out the findings of the investigation involving credible allegations of abuse by priests who have died is under consideration, Stenehjem said. Attorneys general in some other states have issued reports detailing their findings. Any criminal charges will be public, he said.

"I don't think we have an obligation to protect the memory of priests who abused children," Stenehjem said.

The dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck said in their statement that they had "common goals of taking all reasonable measures to protect minors from sexual abuse; ensuring that no cleric with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor remains in ministry; protecting the identity of alleged victims; and bringing sexual perpetrators to justice by prosecuting them when possible."

The review by Stenehjem's office and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation is almost done, the dioceses said. The statement added: "The dioceses are confident that this external review will confirm that they have no clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor remaining in ministry, and that they have had no substantiated allegations of any cleric's sexual abuse of a minor for almost 20 years."

Details about the work histories of the priests, including the places they served and the time of that service, are critical in helping to identify victims and providing details useful to investigators, the lawyers said.

Also, the lawyers said, information about the priests' assignment histories would provide "vindication and acknowledgment to survivors of clergy abuse."

The lawyers are calling upon the North Dakota Legislature to open up the statute of limitations so offenders are no longer shielded from civil lawsuits.

So far, victims the lawyers represent were abused long ago, so the statute of limitations has run out, meaning the victims have no way to seek civil damages. The lawyers are working with lawmakers to propose legislation for the 2021 session that would allow a limited time period to file lawsuits.

"This would just be a limited window of opportunity," O'Brien said. "A lot of states have done one year or two years."

"There currently is not civil relief for the victims," O'Keeffe said. Many victims keep their sexual abuse secret for many years, so "opening a civil window" is important to allow them to finally get some remedy through civil law, he said.

"Obviously this is a very private issue for victims. It's a very tough thing to talk about," O'Keeffe said.

Last year, with support from Stenehjem, North Dakota legislators passed a law greatly expanding the criminal statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse — extending the clock to 21 years from the time a report is made to law enforcement. O'Keeffe and his colleagues praised that new law.

"So there is some criminal justice that could come to fruition," he said.

Reporting sexual abuse

There are several numbers that can be used to report sexual abuse by clergy. If a person is in immediate danger, they should call 911. Residents also should call local law enforcement to report sexual abuse. Here's a list of phone numbers to call for help or to file claims of abuse:

North Dakota Child Protection Program — 800-472-2622

North Dakota Attorney General's Office — 800-472-2185

Fargo Diocese — 701-356-7945 or 701-356-7965

Bismarck Diocese — 877-405-7435 or 701-223-1347


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