Mother alleges wider church coverup of clergy sexual misconduct

StarTribune: A day after Duluth Bishop Paul Sirba told parishioners that he is “completely committed” to assisting victims of clergy sexual misconduct, a St. Paul mother accused him of participating in a coverup involving a priest who abused two of her boys.

“There’s nothing Catholic about it. There’s nothing Christian about it. There’s nothing decent about it,” the mother said Monday in an interview with the Star Tribune.

She was referring in part to a phone call she received from Sirba in 2009, when he was vicar general of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese. She said Sirba called her after learning that one of her boys had gone camping alone with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who later was convicted of sexually abusing the child and his brother. The mother said Sirba told her to make sure another adult was present on any future trips — but that he said the gist of his message was that supervision was needed to protect priests from the appearance of scandal.

Reached late Monday, Sirba said that if he failed to protect the woman’s children, his actions weren’t intentional or part of any coverup.

The bishop said he remembers calling the woman and discussing the church’s “never-alone policy.” He said he didn’t talk about Wehmeyer specifically, and can’t recall how much he knew at the time about the priest’s past. But he approached her mainly for the safety of her boys, saying, “Please don’t let the situation happen,” he said.

The Wehmeyer case, seemingly put to rest in early 2013 when he was sentenced to five years in prison, exploded again late last month with news that the archdiocese’s canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, resigned in April taking a series of allegations to civil authorities. Haselberger told police she was troubled by the archdiocese’s response to possible child endangerment in the case of Wehmeyer and a failure to report child pornography in the case of a second priest.

Priest convicted

The mother, who spoke on condition that her name not be published, said she believes Sirba was more interested in the church’s reputation than in protecting her children.

“He should have said, ‘You need to keep your children away from Father Wehmeyer for their sake,’?” she said. “I would have probably asked a few questions, but my kids would have been protected. It’s just absurd.”

Wehmeyer pleaded guilty in late 2012 to incidents of sexual abuse of the two boys in 2010, in a camper parked at the Church of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, where he was assigned. The conviction included multiple counts of possessing child pornography, some of which he viewed in front of the boys, according to court records.

In 2004, the archdiocese had received a report that Wehmeyer approached two young men for sex at a Roseville bookstore, according to diocese documents. He was sent to a Maryland treatment center for sexual disorders. Then in 2006, Wehmeyer was spotted by a Ramsey County sheriff’s officer cruising by a Maplewood park where men look for sexual encounters.

Neither incident was disclosed publicly by the diocese, or to the staff at Blessed Sacrament, according to a May 2011 internal church memo from the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who preceded Sirba as vicar general. “I would recommend against any disclosure in his workplace,” McDonough wrote. Instead, he recommended that Wehmeyer disclose “his pattern of self-destructive behavior” to a small circle of trusted friends.

In a recent sworn deposition, Haselberger said: “The archdiocese had known of the issues with Father Curtis Wehmeyer for a number of years.”

The phone call

Sirba, who was the second-highest diocesan official in 2009, said he was aware that Wehmeyer had been arrested for drunken driving in Fillmore County in an incident where police received a report that he tried to pick up teenage boys. But that might have been after his phone call with the mother, which she said took place in August, or earlier.

Sirba held a news conference in Duluth on Monday to announce that a retired priest in the diocese, Father Cornelius Kelleher, was recently credibly accused in the sexual abuse of a child during his time as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Chisholm from 1975 to 1986. The statement did not give details about the alleged abuse. It said no criminal charges or lawsuits have been filed.

Diocese spokesman Kyle Eller said a letter from Sirba was read at parish masses over the weekend.

“I deeply regret the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual misconduct on the part of clergy and am completely committed to assisting its victims and preventing any recurrence of these crimes,” Sirba wrote to parishioners. “I ask you to join me in prayer for all those who have been wounded by sexual misconduct on the part of the clergy.”

He said Monday the church is doing its best to change policies and procedures to protect children.

Slow response

Also Monday, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) held a news conference in St. Paul, offering what they said was another example of the archdiocese’s response to sexual abuse victims. Parishioner Frank Meuers said he was abused in the 1950s and 1960s by a now-deceased priest, the Rev. Rudolph Heinrich of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, and wrote to the archdiocese in November 2010 after reading a newspaper article in which church officials encouraged “all victims of sexual abuse to contact us.”

“To my knowledge, nothing was ever done to rectify this situation,” Meuers wrote to then-archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath.

Nine months later, on Aug. 29, 2011, he received a letter from McDonough, who identified himself as “the Archdiocesan staff member who began to respond to the abuse committed by Rudolf Heinrich (in 1991).” McDonough apologized for the delay in responding, Meuers related, then said he has spoken with other abuse victims at the church, and offered to speak with Meuers.

By that time, Meuers was not interested. “Even now, why wouldn’t someone walk out here and say, ‘I’m so sorry’?’’ said Meuers, standing in front of the archdiocese’ chancery.