Charges possible in a Minnesota priest abuse case

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Posted: Oct 17, 2014 4:44 PM
Charges possible in a Minnesota priest abuse case

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota prosecutor said Friday that charges may be brought in at least one case of alleged sexual misconduct by a Catholic priest, and that a case involving allegations that Archbishop John Nienstedt improperly touched a boy remains open despite an earlier decision not to charge him.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said those are two of three St. Paul cases that remain open, while seven other cases of alleged sexual misconduct involving eight Catholic clergy members will not be prosecuted for various reasons. He also told reporters that his office is also still investigating a fourth case, from a St. Paul suburb.

Choi said he declined "solely because of the statute of limitations" to prosecute three recently reported cases from the 1970s and 1980s that his staff has formally reviewed. He said the laws in place at the time required that charges be filed within three years of an offense.

Choi said his office also informally reviewed four cases involving five priests that police had closed. Two priests suspected of abusing the same victim in one of those cases had died, there was not enough evidence to prove one case and investigators could not identify the suspects in the other two cases, he said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been under fire for the past year since a former church official went public with her concerns about how local church leaders handled abuse cases, and the scandal generated several new reports to police. The archdiocese announced a settlement earlier this week in a lawsuit that claimed it created a public nuisance by failing to warn parishioners about an abusive priest. The settlement includes new measures to keep children safe and undisclosed financial terms.

Prosecutors are bound by statutes of limitations applying to criminal sexual conduct, Choi said, but they've been loosened in recent years so victims shouldn't feel discouraged from coming forward even if they were abused long ago.

"This does not mean that we don't believe the victims and we don't believe other victims that are out there," he said. "We want them to come forward. Sharing their story is really going to be helpful to our overall investigation and also to the public so that they can better understand the gravity and the scope of what's been going on within the archdiocese."

The prosecutor declined to go into much detail about the three open cases because they remain under investigation. He said one involves alleged abuse that "happened a long time ago" in which the statute of limitations probably won't apply so charges remain possible.

Choi said his decision from last March not to charge Nienstedt remains in place. The archbishop has denied an allegation that surfaced last December that he inappropriately touched a boy during a public photo session after a confirmation ceremony in 2009.

"However," Choi said, "there are aspects to that case that we're still pursing ... and so that will remain open."

Choi said the third open case involves his office's decision in January not to charge archdiocese officials with failing to immediately report allegations of abuse committed by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who pleaded guilty in 2012 and was sentenced to five years in prison. One lawsuit alleges the officials waited too long between when they confronted Wehmeyer in 2012 and when they called police, giving him time to destroy evidence.

"Some additional information came to light and there are some other issues that we're still following up on," Choi said.

In one of the three cases formally declined for prosecution, according to a memo Choi released, a man told police he was groped in 1984 when he was 12 by a deacon in his neighborhood for whom he did lawn work and odd jobs. He said he never told anyone until he called to police last November. The suspect denied to police in April that anything sexual had happened between them, the memo said, but police saw a letter in the suspect's file with the archdiocese indicating the man engaged in mutual masturbation with a young male prostitute in 1983.

In another case, according to a different memo, a man called police last October and said he had been abused by a priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in 1981, when he was 17. He said the priest kissed him repeatedly and ground his body back and forth over his pelvic area.

And in the third case, another memo said a man told police last October a priest from a parish in St. Paul Park touched his penis in the sauna at a YMCA in 1976 or 1977, when he was between 16 and 18 years old. The suspect told police he didn't remember the incident or the youth. The suspect said in a deposition in a civil case that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with several youths, though he didn't identify this particular person. The suspect is also on the archdiocese's list of "credibly accused" priests, the memo said.