No charges in archdiocese's handling of abuse case

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Associated Press

Posted on January 29, 2014 at 12:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 29 at 7:03 PM

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota prosecutors said Wednesday they would not charge members of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the way they handled allegations of sexual abuse by a priest, saying there was not enough evidence to prove anyone — including another priest who learned during a confession of the molestation — violated the law.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said his office can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone failed to immediately report allegations of abuse by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for molesting two brothers.

But, Choi said, the overall investigation into allegations of clergy sexual misconduct, and the archdiocese's response, is far from over.

"We will only allow facts to lead the way, and we will pursue justice without fear or favor while doing our best to leave no stone unturned," Choi said, later adding: "I continue to be troubled by some of the church's reporting practices."

In a separate case, Washington County prosecutors said Wednesday they would not charge another archdiocesan priest, the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, who had been accused of possessing child pornography. Prosecutors said authorities concluded none of the images on Shelley's old computer were illegal.

In a statement Wednesday, the archdiocese said it is grateful for the investigations, and it continues to cooperate with authorities. The archdiocese also said it teaches employees and volunteers that any suspected abuse should be reported to law enforcement for investigation.

The Wehmeyer and Shelley cases were among several that raised questions about the way the archdiocese handled abuse cases after a church insider went public with her concerns last year.

Internal documents showed church leaders knew Wehmeyer had issues with sexual misconduct, including at least two solicitations of men for sex, before he was promoted to lead The Church of the Blessed Sacrament in 2009.

According to the criminal charges, Wehmeyer went on to molest two brothers in 2010. The allegations were brought to church officials in 2012, and Wehmeyer was charged and pleaded guilty.

Choi said he asked St. Paul police to investigate after questions were raised about when the Wehmeyer case was reported to authorities.

Under the law, clergy would be required to report suspected sexual abuse to authorities within 24 hours. However, if the abuse is revealed during confession or when someone is seeking spiritual advice, the information is exempt.

In a document released Wednesday, prosecutors said the mother of the two victims went to a priest on two occasions, both during confession, about possible abuse by Wehmeyer. Police were notified after the mother went to a church victim's advocate on June 19 or June 20.

The prosecutors' decision to decline charges angered Jeff Anderson, an attorney for many church abuse victims. Anderson said the case should be reopened because a deacon and a top archdiocesan official warned Wehmeyer of his impending arrest, giving him a chance to destroy evidence.

"This is a very disturbing day," Anderson said.

But Choi said church officials' actions didn't impede the criminal prosecution of Wehmeyer, and the case is considered complete unless new information comes forward.

As the scandal around the archdiocese grew last fall, Archbishop John Nienstedt appointed a task force to examine church policies on abuse allegations, and he ordered a review of all priest files. He has also apologized to the archdiocese's more than 800,000 Catholics.

Nienstedt himself has been accused of improperly touching a boy while posing for a photo during a confirmation ceremony, a claim he vehemently denies. Nienstedt has removed himself from public ministry while the case is being investigated.

Despite those moves, St. Paul police earlier complained that church officials were not forthcoming with information. Police Chief Thomas Smith said Wednesday cooperation has improved, but he expects the archdiocese to be transparent.

"Have we had more access? Yes we have," Smith said. "Can more be done? Yes it can."

In the Washington County case, head prosecutor Pete Orput said investigators concluded there was no evidence of child pornography on computer files that once belonged to Shelley. The case against him — which was reopened last year after new information was brought to police — is considered closed.

Shelley's attorney, Paul Engh, said his client is relieved.

"Father Shelley is pleased that the matter has ended," Engh said. "He looks forward to a life now free of unfair suspicion."

Shelley, who has been on leave, would like to return to active ministry, Engh said, adding he didn't know when or if that would happen.

Prosecutors, police and the archdiocese encouraged other victims of clergy sexual abuse to come forward. Choi extended that request to victims who have already settled lawsuits against the archdiocese, no matter how long ago, saying the decision in the Wehmeyer case is just the beginning.

"There will be more decisions to come as this investigation unfolds," Choi said.

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Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti .

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