ST. PAUL — A Twin Cities attorney is calling on Gov. Mark Dayton to open a statewide grand jury investigation into the alleged crimes committed by “predator” priests against children and crimes committed by other top Catholic church officials, from bishops to archbishops, that have chosen to cover them up.
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul-based attorney who specializes in sexual abuse, made the announcement Wednesday, Aug. 22, during a press conference where he was accompanied by a group of eight sexual abuse survivors.
Although there is nothing in state law that could allow Dayton or a governor to call a grand jury, Anderson is also calling on the attorney general’s office and local prosecutors across Minnesota to launch a grand jury investigation into all Catholic dioceses in the state.
The call for a grand jury investigation in Minnesota was inspired, Anderson said, by a newly released grand jury report in Pennsylvania that concluded bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the state covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests during a period of 70 years.
Victims were also persuaded by bishops and other church leaders not to report the abuse and for law enforcement not to investigate, according to the report.
A call made to a bishop in northwest Minnesota wasn’t returned late Wednesday, but Bishop Michael Hoeppner had released a statement and a letter to his parishioners on the Diocese of Crookston website earlier in the day where he called for his parishes to join Pope Francis in “creating a culture of care that says `never again’ to any form of abuse.”
He also said he thought a thorough investigation in abuses of the past was needed and urged parishioners to join him in prayer for sex abuse victims and their families and Friday fasting as way for forgiveness.
Duluth Bishop Paul Sirba, in a letter dated Wednesday, wrote that Catholics have been “exposed to the sins of the church’s priests and bishops,” particularly over the past five years and now in wake of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania which found that Catholic leaders covered up abuse by more than 300 priests over a span of 70 years.
“As a diocese we will continue to offer prayers for healing and reparation,” Sirba wrote. “I ask the clergy, religious, and lay faithful to pray and fast so as to lead the Church to enact canonical changes that hold bishops accountable, protect men discerning a call to the priesthood, and lead to new mechanisms of holding bishops accountable that have never been in place before to safeguard our children and restore trust.”
Meanwhile, Anderson said that "for years, the Catholic bishops hid behind the statute of limitations and every case brought before them was brought out. But since it was moved to civility in Minnesota, we have made progress.”
In May 2013, Dayton signed into law the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which allowed victims of child sexual abuse a three-year window to file civil action. That legislation resulted in hundreds of survivors coming forward with abuse allegations against Minnesota priests, including the eight standing alongside Anderson Wednesday.
“As a result of the hundreds of survivors that have come forward in Minnesota and brought civil actions, we have been able to excavate, disgorge and uncover tens-of-thousands of files of offenders that reflect every Catholic bishop present and past that has been complicit in the concealment of clerical crimes,” said Anderson. “For years, the Catholic bishops hid behind the statute of limitations and every case was thrown out.”
Anderson said since the statute of limitations opened up in Minnesota and through the help of survivors, they’ve now identified 186 priests accused of alleged sexual abuse of minors.
Anderson said under Minnesota law each county attorney has the power to call a grand jury to investigate sexual abuse crimes, but due to the high number of county attorneys, none of them were able to move forward with a statewide investigation.
Now, Anderson is asking for the governor’s help in pursuing a statewide grand jury investigation.
“I believe the governor and his office have been supportive of our efforts and I have a lot of hope that they can do what they can do,” Anderson said. “It’s time for more to be done.”
The St. Paul attorney is also calling upon a grand jury to investigate the Catholic Bishops of Minnesota, a group in which Anderson called an “organized crime syndicate.”
In particular, Anderson specifically called out the Catholic dioceses in Crookston and Duluth for refusing to turn over documents and files related to alleged sexual abuse cases.
“In Crookston, they’ve identified nine offenders on their list … we know there are more,” Anderson said. “Similarly in the diocese in Duluth, there are 37 offenders that have now been identified by them … we know there are more.”
Anderson said the bishops in Duluth have also not cooperated in turning over requested documents, saying “they’re holding onto their secrets.”
Hoeppner didn’t respond to Anderson’s statement in his letter on the website. But he did say all victims of sexual abuse are owed a sincere apology.
The apology, he said, is “for what those entrusted with leadership in the church have done and have failed to do. It is important that we promise to continue, with renewed effort, our commitment to build in the church” that change in culture as the pope said.
“Changes are necessary so that sins and failures of the past are not repeated,” he said in the statement.
In the meantime, the bishop urged parishioners to “join me in prayer and fasting as we fight the evil of sexual abuse and all its ramifications at this moment in our church’s life.”
Specifically, he said that parishioners offer a prayer daily for all victims of sex abuse and their families and to fast and abstain from eating meat on Fridays for forgiveness and that “all might do better.”
He also asked that all priests hold a weekday Mass at least once a month to pray for the church and invite all parishioners.
The Diocese of Duluth filed for bankruptcy in December 2015 after an onslaught of abuse claims under the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The diocese is facing 125 claims in the ongoing bankruptcy, and it has publicly identified three dozen former priests who have been considered “credibly accused” of abuse dating as far back as the 1940s.
Sirba wrote that the revelation of abuse claims across the world “although excruciatingly painful, is necessary for healing.”
Joe McClane, a sexual abuse survivor who was at the St. Paul press conference, said the end goal has always been about general reform and accountability in the Catholic church.
“We need genuine accountability,” McClane said. “And this is the way forward.”
Another survivor said that it’s time that the people of the Catholic church stand up with the survivors.
“You must know that we speak the truth,” said one of the survivors. “You need to stand with us so that the truth will be known.”
Reporter Barry Amundson contributed to this report