MINNEAPOLIS — Five men who say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests when they were minors are planning to sue the Vatican and are demanding the names of thousands of predator priests they claim have been kept secret by the Holy See.
In a Monday news release announcing the lawsuit, Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson said he wants to show that the Vatican tried to cover up actions by top church officials including former St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt. The lawsuit being filed Tuesday seeks the release of 3,400 names of priests who were referred to the Vatican for “credible cases of abuse.” That number was released by the Vatican in 2014.
The lawsuit comes less than a week after Pope Francis issued a groundbreaking new church law requiring all Catholic priests and nuns worldwide to report clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities. The law is part of a new effort to hold the Catholic hierarchy accountable.
But the new law stops short of requiring the crimes to be reported to police, and abuse victims and their advocates say it’s not enough since it essentially tasks discredited bishops who have mishandled abuse for decades with policing their own.
The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit include three brothers who were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer as recently as 2012 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and child pornography in connection with his contact with two of the boys, who were 12 and 14. The brothers are not named in the press release.
Internal church documents show that church leaders knew Wehmeyer had engaged in sexual misconduct when they promoted him in 2009. The behavior included at least two occasions when Wehmeyer solicited men for sex. Yet, church leaders did not warn Wehmeyer’s parishioners about his past, and a July 2014 church memo raised concerns that Nienstedt’s “social relationship” with Wehmeyer had clouded his judgment.
Wehmeyer’s arrest led prosecutors to file criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failing to protect children. It also led to the resignation of Nienstedt, who came under fire for his handling of Wehmeyer’s case at a time when his own sexual behavior was under scrutiny. Nienstedt was investigated following credible allegations that he engaged in misconduct and harassment, then retaliated when his advances were rejected. Nienstedt has denied the allegations, calling them “entirely false.”
His successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, said last December that the Vatican suspended the investigation when Nienstedt resigned in 2015. And while Nienstedt remains in good standing with the Vatican, Hebda has forbidden him from exercising public ministry in his archdiocese.
Messages left with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C. were not returned Monday. An email sent to Nienstedt went unanswered.
The other plaintiffs are, Manuel Vega, a California man who says he was abused by a priest in Los Angeles, and James Keenan, who says he was sexually abused by a priest in Minnesota.
Rezendes reported from Winthrop, Massachusetts.