Abusive Priest Slipped Under Radar

ALTOONA – For years Thomas Adamson’s kindly face was a familiar sight at Oakwood Villa nursing home, assisting with activities for elderly residents and offering the caring, personal touch of a priest.

But apparently unbeknownst to nursing home visitors, residents and administrators, Adamson, 73, carried a dark, heavy secret – one that threatened to derail his career and reputation yet again.

The man known by those at Oakwood for his pleasant, friendly demeanor is considered one of the nation’s most notorious pedophile priests, with claims by 30 people that he sexually assaulted them, beginning in 1959 and continuing at least into the 1980s. Experts estimate he likely has abused as many as 100 boys, and Minnesota Catholic dioceses have paid an estimated $6 million in lawsuit settlements as a result of Adamson’s actions.

Adamson’s past eventually caught up with him and led to his recent dismissal from his Altoona nursing home job. On Jan. 11 directors of the Wisconsin and Minnesota chapters of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) notified nursing home administrators about Adamson’s previous activities, which include a dozen lawsuits alleging he sexually assaulted boys over a 30-year period. He now lives in Altoona.

Despite the publicity surrounding allegations of Adamson’s past transgressions, members of organizations that monitor priest sex offenders had lost track of Adamson since the early 1990s.

That changed in the early afternoon of Jan. 11, when Apple Valley, Minn., resident Jack Klein – who filed a lawsuit five years ago claiming Adamson had sexually assaulted him – and SNAP directors Peter Isley and Bob Schwiderski confronted Adamson in the Oakwood Villa parking lot. Two reporters witnessed the confrontation.

‘Why did you do it? Why?’ an emotional Klein questioned Adamson. ‘Do you remember me? Do you remember what you did?’

Adamson appeared somewhat startled to see Klein, although he spoke with him briefly. Adamson acknowledged knowing Klein’s parents, but he denied having abused Klein. When Klein persisted, Adamson finally responded, ‘I’m sorry.’

Adamson wasn’t talking with others about his past that day, refusing to answer reporters’ questions.

While such confrontations may seem aggressive, Isley, Wisconsin’s SNAP director, said they’re necessary to combat the clandestine movement by the Catholic Church of problem priests from one place to another. Isley, along with Schwiderski, Minnesota’s SNAP director, and others believe either the Winona Diocese or the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese transferred Adamson to Wisconsin sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s in a move designed to keep his whereabouts secret.

‘We have a responsibility to do this, Schwiderski said. ‘The people at that nursing home and the people of this community deserve to know who this guy really is.’

Given Adamson’s track record of abuse and questions about whether he has received treatment, Isley wonders whether he committed further abuses while working at Oakwood Villa and called for an investigation.

Nursing home administrators said Adamson didn’t receive or require special supervision while working there.

‘Why would they have supervised him? They didn’t know who they were dealing with,’ Isley said.

Oakwood Villa officials refused to reveal how long Adamson worked at the facility, but others with ties to the facility said he was there for at least five years. He began volunteering to assist nursing home residents with various activities and was later hired to do that job part time, said Pete Leer, nursing home administrator. No concerns were raised about improper behavior by Adamson, Leer said.

Adamson did not provide one-on-one care for residents, Leer said, nor did he act as a chaplain. The nursing home conducted a criminal background check on Adamson similar to that used for all other employees and didn’t find any problems that prevented his hiring, Leer said.

‘(Adamson) was well-liked by staff, residents and families,’ Leer said.

David Clohessy, national SNAP director, said he was alarmed to hear Adamson was working at a nursing home. While it may seem unlikely a former priest with Adamson’s history of abusing boys would take advantage of nursing home residents, those calling Oakwood Villa home were at risk of abuse with Adamson around, Clohessy said.

Transferring abusive priests to nursing homes is a common move by Catholic bishops looking to hide those who have committed sex crimes, said Anne Doyle, co-director of Waltham, Mass.-based BishopAccountability.org, a group that publishes records and other material on priests accused of those crimes.

‘Adamson’s case illustrates why this is such a huge problem. You don’t know where these people are,’ Doyle said.

St. Paul lawyer Jeffrey Anderson has represented a dozen clients who have filed lawsuits against Adamson. He won a $3.5 million settlement in 1990 for a case against Adamson, the largest award of its kind at that time. The amount was later reduced to $1.04 million.

Anderson, who has garnered national acclaim representing clients abused by priests, said Adamson makes the who’s who list of priest sex offenders nationwide, joining such well-known, dubious figures as Paul Shanley and John J. Geoghan, who made headlines after the much-publicized Boston priest scandal surfaced five years ago. Among the most prominent church figures involved in sex scandals, Adamson’s name appears in hundreds of priest sex abuse news stories ranging from Time magazine to The New York Times.

‘This guy is a compulsive, serial predator,’ Anderson said of Adamson. ‘Of all of the priest abuse cases, there are a handful of offenders who have emerged as the most heinous, the most prolific, and he is among them.’

Continued abuses

Records show reports of Adamson’s sex assaults against males surfaced shortly after his May 31, 1958 ordination.

Court depositions from the mid- and late 1980s reveal Adamson in 1959 engaged in sexual relations with two adult males – one a priest and one a serviceman.

Then, in 1961, while serving as an assistant principal, teacher and basketball coach in southwestern Minnesota, Adamson lured an eighth-grade boy into a longtime sexual relationship.

As time went on Adamson made sexual advances toward more boys, and word of his improper actions filtered back to his superiors. Finally, as charges of sexual misconduct mounted, Adamson’s Winona Diocese supervisors transferred him to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he became known for his willingness to minister to youth.

Aided by Adamson’s charming personality, the cycle of abuse started again, records show, continuing until archdiocese leaders placed him on a leave of absence in December 1984.

In 1983 Anderson took on his first client claiming sex abuse by Adamson. By the late 1980s, the lawyer represented several others claiming Adamson had assaulted them.

Records show church leaders referred Adamson for treatment for his sexual problems, a sign they knew of his transgressions. But they refused to report him to law enforcement authorities, instead shuffling him from parish to parish, where more reports of abuse surfaced.

Winona and Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese leaders have contended they didn’t know the extent of Adamson’s abuse of boys. But church documents made public during court cases against Adamson paint a different picture, detailing how Adamson was allowed to continue working with children despite repeated complaints about his sexual assaults to his superiors.

‘A big part of this story is how Adamson’s bishops have protected him and continue to protect him, even to this day,’ Anderson said, noting Adamson receives $1,500 monthly from the Winona Diocese. ‘(Church officials) don’t give a (expletive) about the kids. They only care about keeping this all secret.’

‘Don’t tell’

Klein knows all about keeping secrets.

The 52-year-old real estate agent – who said the priest sexually assaulted him on numerous occasions from 1967 to 1969, starting when he was 13 – filed a lawsuit against Adamson following reports of the Boston priests sex abuse scandal. For 35 years Klein had lived with the shame and pain of what had happened until he decided to seek recourse.

‘It just got to the point where I couldn’t keep it in anymore,’ Klein said. ‘After those (Boston) stories came out, I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’ ‘

News of his abuse devastated Klein’s family. In a scenario all too common in priest sex abuse cases, Klein’s lawsuit was dismissed because too much time had elapsed since the instances had occurred. In Minnesota, the statute of limitations for such crimes is six years.

Klein’s description of his abuse at the hands of Adamson fits the pattern of other cases filed.

Klein grew up in the 1960s on a farm near the small southwestern Minnesota town of Adrian, where Adamson worked as assistant high school principal and pastor at St. Adrian Church.

Like others living there, Klein’s parents admired the affable Adamson. ‘They thought he walked on water,’ Klein said.

Klein said Adamson first abused him during a summer weekend away from home in 1967. Adamson told Klein he was the only boy he had molested and urged him to keep the incident to himself. ‘He said, ‘Don’t tell, or we’ll both get in trouble,’ ‘ Klein said.

The abuse continued during the next two years, Klein said, at Adamson’s parents’ home and at St. Adrian Church, where Klein was an altar boy. It stopped when Klein learned how to avoid winding up alone with Adamson.

‘This wasn’t about sex. It was about power. And boy, he had it. I was living in fear. I was on pins and needles every time he came around,’ Klein said.

Secret existence

That Klein or others assisting with priest sex abuse issues were able to find Adamson at all was a surprise.

Despite continuing lawsuits filed against him – the most recent last April stemming from alleged abuse in the 1980s – Adamson’s whereabouts for the past 15 years had largely been a mystery to those who track priests accused of sex crimes.

A 1988 Minneapolis Star-Tribune series detailing Adamson’s transgressions said he lived in Eau Claire at the time. Subsequent newspaper articles about him said Adamson lived in the Eau Claire area but noted that reporters were unable to locate a phone number or address for him.

‘We really don’t know much about what he’s been up to because the diocese quietly moved him (to Wisconsin). That’s just the way they want it, to keep him secret,’ Anderson said.

That secret was lifted earlier this month. On Jan. 10 Anderson said he met with Adamson in his Altoona apartment after receiving unexpected information that helped him locate the former priest. Their discussion was troubling, Anderson said, because Adamson wasn’t willing to admit past assaults of boys. When Anderson said he planned to expose Adamson’s past to Oakwood Villa officials and surrounding residents, Adamson ‘begged me not to do it,’ Anderson said.

‘He is in deep, deep denial, and that makes him a prime candidate to offend again,’ Anderson said of their hour-long talk.

That’s what troubles Klein. Three decades after then-Bishop Loras Watters of the Winona Diocese promised his family Adamson would never again work with children, after years of gut-wrenching pain and self-doubt, Klein sought a sense of closure by confronting his former priest. Afterward, Klein wasn’t sure he received it.

‘It was real hard … there’s still a lot of pain there,’ he said minutes after his discussion with Adamson in the parking lot. ‘I don’t want to be here. But the only way this will change is if victims like me come forward.’

Emerson can be reached at 830-5911, (800) 236-7077 or julian.emerson@ecpc.com.

Julian Emerson, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram