Report: Archdiocese knew of priest’s misconduct

Published 9:26 am Friday, September 27, 2013

ST. PAUL — When the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was accused last year of sexually abusing children, officials from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told police he would immediately be relieved of his duties and were praised for their quick response.

But top archdiocese officials had known of Wehmeyer’s sexual compulsions for nearly a decade yet kept him in ministry and failed to warn parishioners. Minnesota Public Radio cited canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April, and dozens of other interviews and documents.

A memo written in 2011 shows the former vicar general — the top deputy of the archdiocese — did not want employees at Wehmeyer’s parish to know about his past.

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“At every step of the way, this could have been prevented,” Haselberger said. “This is just failure after failure after failure after failure.”

Wehmeyer is serving a five-year prison term for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography. He declined to comment.

In a statement Monday, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said it “deeply regrets the harm Curtis Wehmeyer caused his two young victims, their family and others in our community.”

“We did act swiftly when the allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by Wehmeyer were made in June 2012. In hindsight and in light of what we know now, we also recognize that our handling of past concerns and decisions should have been better addressed,” the archdiocese said.

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, who was vicar general until 2008 and oversaw child abuse prevention for the archdiocese until earlier this month, said last week that nothing in what officials knew about Wehmeyer’s behavior indicated he was a threat to children.

In his 2011 memo, McDonough explained why he thought parish employees at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul didn’t need to know about Wehmeyer’s past. Archdiocese officials knew by then that included approaching young men for sex at a bookstore in 2004 and cruising a park in 2006 that was a popular place for anonymous sex.

After Wehmeyer’s actions at the bookstore, the archdiocese sent him to a treatment center in Maryland for clergy with sexual and psychological disorders.

“He really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by ‘playing with fire,’” McDonough wrote in the memo. “This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace.”

By then, Wehmeyer already had abused the children of a parish employee.

But McDonough said he still thinks that his response was appropriate.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing in this man’s behavior known to us would have convinced any reasonable person that he was likely to harm kids,” he said.

Haselberger went to work for the archdiocese in 2008. A few months later she noticed Wehmeyer’s file contained no background check despite a policy requiring them. But she did find documents on his sexual misbehavior.

She said she knew Archbishop John Nienstedt was considering promoting Wehmeyer, so she urged him to review his file. She assumed that would end Wehmeyer’s career.

While she waited for a response, the archdiocese continued to receive reports on Wehmeyer. In 2009, someone reported seeing Wehmeyer acting suspiciously with boys at a campground. Those were the same boys he was later accused of abusing, Hasselberger said.

But in 2010, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor. He was working at Blessed Sacrament last year when the allegations that sent him to prison surfaced.

After his arrest, Haselberger said, archdiocese officials focused on how to spin the story as an example of the church’s quick response.

“I had a hard time with that, that attitude and the desire to portray it that way, instead of to be honest,” she said. “There were a lot of senior staff that should have been wearing sackcloth and ashes and praying the rosary around the Cathedral in hopes that people would forgive us for letting this happen.”