The victims of one of Minnesota’s highest-profile clergy abuse cases sued the Vatican in federal court Tuesday, charging negligence in supervising the priest who abused them, the former Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, and demanding that the Vatican release its files on all clergy sex abusers.
Luke, Stephen and Benedict Hoffman were three of the five plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit announced by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson at a news conference.
“I have too many nieces and nephews to let this happen to anyone else,” said Stephen Hoffman.
Anderson’s office has sued the Vatican before. But this time, he said he is optimistic they have the right case with the right set of plaintiffs.
“We have developed a body of evidence that demonstrates that all roads lead to Rome,” Anderson said.
The Wehmeyer case was one of the most recent and egregious abuse cases made public during a wave of abuse lawsuits filed after the 2013 passage of the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The former pastor at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul had a history of sexual misconduct with young men. He was nonetheless allowed to lead a church, where he “groomed and abused” the brothers starting in 2006 and ending in 2012 with his arrest, the lawsuit said.
His case led to unprecedented criminal charges filed by Ramsey County against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failing to protect children, and the case led to new archdiocesan protocols for reporting and responding to abuse.
It also led to the resignation of former Archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against the priest.
The lawsuit asks that the Vatican provide the secret names and church files about thousands of priests — and their bishops and supervisors — who perpetrated sexual abuse. Those documents would include information about how Nienstedt handled the Wehmeyer abuse reports.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan, who was sexually abused by serial abuser and former priest Tom Adamson, and survivor Manuel Vega of California who was abused by another reported serial abuser, the Rev. Fidencio Silva-Flores.
The Hoffman brothers, who were identified only as Doe 1, Doe 2 and Doe 3 in the Wehmeyer criminal case, said they decided to step forward in the Vatican lawsuit because they wanted to prevent other children from enduring what they did.
“I believe that putting my face and name behind this would bring significance to it and might help survivors,” said Luke Hoffman.
The men said they remained members of the Catholic Church, but they wanted to make sure children could grow in faith in a safe environment.
“I am still Catholic: I have deep love for my church,” added Ben Hoffman. “But we have to fix this.”
Ben Hoffman believes his abuse was preventable, as the archdiocese was aware of Wehmeyer’s sexual misconduct. In 2004, Wehmeyer was cited by police for loitering in a park known for anonymous sex encounters, court documents show. The same year, the priest approached two young men at a bookstore and made sexually suggestive comments. The archdiocese sent Wehmeyer to the St. Luke Institute, a facility for sexually offending priests.
Wehmeyer was placed on a monitoring program in February 2006, and four months later the archdiocese assigned him as parochial administrator at Blessed Sacrament, eventually promoting him to pastor. Parishioners were never told of his past.
After his abuse of the Hoffmans was reported to authorities, Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to criminal sexual misconduct and possessing child pornography. He was sentenced to and is serving five years in prison and has been removed from the priesthood.
The 77-page lawsuit lays out the argument that the Vatican is the ultimate authority in the Catholic Church, as the employer and supervisor of Catholic clergy, the owner of its property and the beneficiary of its fundraising. It therefore is responsible for the abuse committed by its priests and any coverups, the lawsuit argues.
It also notes that the Holy See is a sovereign judicial entity and has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and is legally obligated to abide by it.
St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda issued a statement following the news conference. “Having met with scores of survivors of clergy sex abuse, I understand the anger and frustration at the church that is apparent in the lawsuit filed today by Jeffrey Anderson,” Hebda wrote.
“I am profoundly sorry for their suffering, and I am very grateful to the Hoffmans for sharing their stories with others and, in one instance, with me,” he said. “I thank them for their courage. I thank them for being staunch child protection advocates.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement by Pope Francis that the Roman Catholic Church now would require that clergy report any sexual abuse to their superiors. The new rules have been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse, who say any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511