MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Prosecutors in Minnesota brought criminal charges on Friday against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accusing it of failing to protect children from a priest who pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexual abuse.
Prosecutors found “a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior” over the course of decades at the highest level of leadership in the archdiocese, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.
“The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored, they cannot be dismissed and are, frankly, appalling,” Choi told a news conference. “And, more importantly, our community cannot allow them to be repeated.”
The charges against the archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, are the latest development in the child sexual abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church in many U.S. cities.
The archdiocese is charged with three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the need for protection or services for the minors who were the victims of the sexual abuse and three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the minors’ status as juvenile petty offenders or delinquency. The archdiocese also faces a related civil complaint.
The charges and civil complaint seek to hold the archdiocese accountable for the victims’ needs for protective services and their delinquency resulting from the conduct, Choi said.
The charges and civil complaint name only the archdiocese as defendant, which limits possible penalties to a fine, but would be a statement about accountability, Choi said.
The priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, pleaded guilty in November 2012 to three felony counts of criminal sexual conduct with two minors and 17 counts of possession of child pornography. He is serving a five-year prison sentence. He also is awaiting trial on charges bought by Wisconsin prosecutors in November 2014 accusing him of sexual assaulting a third minor.
The minors told investigators Wehmeyer gave them beer and marijuana or cigarettes, showed them pornographic images and touched their genitals in a camper parked on parish grounds or while camping, according to the complaint.
About 825,000 Catholics live in the archdiocese, which has 187 parishes and 90 schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Hundreds of civil cases have been filed against the archdiocese accusing it of failing to supervise priests or turning a blind eye to sex abuse by clergy.
Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese, said in a statement the archdiocese will continue to cooperate with the Ramsey County Attorney’s office and shares the same goal to provide a safe environment for all children.
“We deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and are grieved for all victims of sexual abuse,” Cozzens said.
Choi said prosecutors focused first on the Wehmeyer case in part because it fell within the statute of limitations and what occurred in the case has happened to many more victims.
The archdiocese failed to respond meaningfully to “numerous and repeated reports” of troubling conduct by Wehmeyer from his entrance into seminary in 1997 until his formal dismissal as a priest in March of this year, Choi said.
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents plaintiffs in civil cases against the archdiocese, said the scope of the criminal complaint “demonstrates a serious systemic problem.”
When it filed for bankruptcy protection in January, the archdiocese said the reorganization would allow it to distribute finite resources among victims and survivors of child sex abuse by clergy.
Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Will Dunham