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Archbishop John Nienstedt said Thursday he will hire an outside firm to review priests’ files at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has been under fire for its handling of clergy sexual misconduct.

The archdiocese recently retained legal counsel to start the process, the archdiocese said, and Nienstedt is interviewing several national firms with expertise in clergy file review to supplement its efforts.

“The first thing that must be acknowledged is that over the last decade, some serious mistakes have been made,” Nienstedt wrote in the Catholic Spirit, the official publication of the archdiocese.

“There is reason to question whether or not the policies and procedures [on sexual misconduct] were uniformly followed,’’ he wrote. “There is also a question as to the prudence of the judgments that have been made.”

The announcement left several questions unanswered — including how this will differ from previous internal reviews and how much detail will be shared publicly — and victims’ advocates quickly expressed skepticism.

“Why not give this information to experienced and unbiased professionals in law enforcement?” asked David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Keeping it secret is what caused this in the first place.”

Critical priest supports move

But the Rev. Bill Deziel, pastor at the Church of St. Peter in North St. Paul, who questioned the archdiocese leadership in his church newsletter last week, supported the action.

“I believe that the independent work of the task force combined with the review of all clergy files by an outside firm will encourage many concerned faithful to regain their trust and confidence in our archdiocesan leadership,” Deziel said.

Hiring an outside firm to examine clergy personnel files is a move typically taken by archdioceses facing heightened public scrutiny over their handling of sex abuse cases, said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a Virginia-based priest and canon lawyer who was part of a team that recently audited the Capuchin Franciscans.

Similar reviews were commissioned by dioceses in Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Albany, N.Y., and other cities, according to Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based group that tracks clergy abuse.

“Usually it’s overwhelming publicity that causes them to take these steps,” Doyle said.

Nienstedt ordered the review after a new round of allegations of priest sexual abuse and accusations that archdiocese leaders covered up internal warnings.

“We need to ascertain the facts, and this will lead us to prudent and ongoing disclosure,” Nienstedt wrote.

“As the head of this local Church, I know that the ultimate responsibility here is mine. My heart is heavy with the agony that these errors have caused.”

The review began 10 days ago by an independent attorney, said Jim Accurso, archdiocese spokesman. In addition, the chancery is looking for a firm with national experience on clergy reviews and no prior association with the archdiocese, he said.

The review will begin with all priests in active ministry, he said. Reviewers will look for any indication of sexual misconduct, illegal behavior, financial mismanagement and possible violations of canon law, Accurso said. There is no deadline.

“We will share results once the work is completed or as soon as we believe that we can provide a thorough update on an interim basis,’’ Accurso said. “Our goal is prudent and ongoing disclosure.”

The work will differ from that of a task force recently appointed by Nienstedt because it will focus on individual clergy files, not archdiocese policies and practices, Accurso said.

Public accounting?

Doyle said that if the archdiocese really means to ascertain the facts, the outside firm will need access to all clergy personnel files — of clergy alive and dead — as well as related documents. The review should also include personal interviews with those involved in the cases. And there should be some form of public accounting, Doyle added.

“It should detail how the case was mishandled, and who was responsible,’’ Doyle said. “The end result has to be that the archdiocese [releases] the names of credibly-accused clergy.”

This is at least the third time in the past 35 years that the archdiocese has reviewed its sexual misconduct files, said Patrick Wall, a former priest who worked in the chancery during the 1990s.

“There was a review board in 1986, another one in the 1990s, another in 2002,’’ said Wall, now a sexual abuse victims advocate in the office of attorney Jeff Anderson.

The archdiocese provided a 50-year history of sexual misconduct for a nationwide survey of clergy abuse commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published in 2004, he said.

“They [the archdiocese] already knows what’s in there,’’ Wall alleged. “This is just a smoke screen.’’

Reaction among priests varied. While Deziel said the announcement began to restore his confidence, the Rev. Terry Rasmussen, pastor of St. Joseph Parish Community in New Hope and Plymouth, said he has lost faith in Nienstedt’s ability to address the crisis.

“A lot of our parishioners are very angry and disillusioned,’’ Rassmussen said. “There’s no confidence in this archbishop that he can get us through it.’’

In his letter, Nienstedt apologized to victims, their families and others who’s faith has been shaken by the allegations.

“With genuine sorrow, I apologize to all those who have been victimized, whether on my watch or not,’’ he wrote. “Can we do better? I believe we can.”

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.

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