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Twin Cities archdiocese settles civil charges over abuse

Created: 12/18/2015 3:54 PM
By AMY FORLITI

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has reached a settlement with state prosecutors that will allow for more oversight and independent audits as part of a civil case that alleged it failed to protect children from sexual abuse. A criminal case that accuses the archdiocese of child endangerment will continue.

The agreement in the civil case, announced Friday in Ramsey County District Court, allows legal oversight of the archdiocese over the next three years, with the goal of changing its organizational culture to ensure that no more children become victims, prosecutors said.

"Under this agreement, the hierarchy of the archdiocese may no longer conceal or minimize clergy sex abuse," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said after the hearing.

Archdiocese attorney Joe Dixon said in court that the settlement must be approved by a bankruptcy judge, but both sides pledge to begin work immediately. In addition to agreeing to two independent audits and oversight by prosecutors and the court, the archdiocese also plans to give the court progress updates every six months.

If the archdiocese remains in compliance over the next three years, the civil charges will be dismissed.

The civil case stems from a petition Choi's office filed in June, alleging that the archdiocese contributed to the need for protection of three children who were sexually abused by a former priest. The archdiocese was also charged with six gross misdemeanor criminal counts of child endangerment in connection with the same priest. 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 is imprisoned in Minnesota for sexually abusing two brothers, and he'll begin a sentence in Wisconsin in 2016 for abusing a third sibling there.

Each of the six criminal counts carries a maximum fine of $3,000. Choi and archdiocese officials said the criminal case is moving toward a resolution.

Ten days after the charges were filed, then-Archbishop John Nienstedt, resigned from his post. Nienstedt has not been charged.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said Friday that the church can't change the past, but is committed to changing the future.

"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."

The archdiocese has been under fire since 2013, when a former church official went public with concerns about its 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.

A 2014 settlement between the archdiocese and plaintiffs' attorneys created protocols designed to keep children safe. Choi said Friday that the new agreement incorporates many of those protocols — but now his office has the power to enforce them.

If the archdiocese doesn't comply with the agreement, Choi said, it will have 28 calendar days to make changes, or it will face court action.

"Though the requirements in this agreement, it is my expectation that ... the protection of children will forever be of paramount importance within this archdiocese," Choi said.

The agreement also requires that all allegations of misconduct be addressed by a ministerial board comprised mainly of non-clergy, instead of allowing one or two church leaders to make decisions. In addition, the archdiocese agreed it will not conduct its own internal investigations of abuse allegations, and will not interfere with law enforcement.

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Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti . More of her work can be found at http://www.bigstory.ap.org/content/amy-forliti .

(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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