Twin Cities archdiocese settles civil charges over abuse

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2015 2:05 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has reached a settlement with Ramsey County prosecutors in a civil case that alleges it failed to protect children from sexual abuse. A criminal case that accuses church leaders of repeatedly ignoring misconduct by a former priest is ongoing.

The agreement in the civil case announced in court Friday provides a framework for better oversight of the archdiocese over the next three years, according to prosecutors. Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Tom Ring said the goal is to create an environment where no child will again be abused.

Archdiocese attorney Joe Dixon said the settlement must still be approved by a bankruptcy court, but both sides pledge to begin work immediately.

"You're making a significant effort to protect not only children but to protect citizens, and that doesn't go unnoticed," said Ramsey County Chief Judge Teresa Warner.

A pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against the archdiocese was postponed Friday, but both prosecutors and archdiocese officials said they are working toward a resolution of those charges. The archdiocese was charged earlier this year with six gross misdemeanor counts of child endangerment for allegedly turning a blind eye to repeated misconduct by a former priest, who has since been convicted of molesting two boys in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.

Prosecutors say top church officials failed to respond to "numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct" by Curtis Wehmeyer from the time he entered the seminary in 1997 until he was removed from the priesthood in March. Wehmeyer, imprisoned in Minnesota for sexually abusing two young brothers, will begin a Wisconsin sentence in 2016 for abusing a third sibling in 2011.

Each of the six criminal counts filed in June carries a maximum fine of $3,000.

Ten days after the charges were filed, then-Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned from his post.

The archdiocese has been under fire since 2013, when a former church official went public with concerns about the church's handling of abuse cases. That same year, a state law opened a three-year window for victims of past sex abuse to file lawsuits. The archdiocese has declared bankruptcy and more than 400 victims have come forward.

The archdiocese will be under the oversight of prosecutors and the court, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Friday. An external audit will review the archdiocese activities in the past year. If issues arise and the archdiocese is not compliant with the agreement, it will be given a chance to comply before the matter would move into court.

Choi said the agreement incorporates many of the changes the archdiocese agreed to in a 2014 civil case, but this time compliance is legally enforceable.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said the church is powerless to change the past, but is committed to changing the future, in hopes that other young people do not become victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"Although significant strides have been made, the archdiocese recognizes that its work is not done, and will never be done," Hebda said. He said the archdiocese is committed to working openly with authorities "always with the prayerful hope of rebuilding trust."

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