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Clergy Sexual Abuse Case Study: Abuse Cover-Up & Attempted Homicide

On May 21, 1990, a 26-year-old Minnesota man was arrested by Eau Claire (Wisconsin) police for attempted first degree homicide of a Catholic priest. The charge was eventually amended to attempted felony battery. The man was convicted and sentenced to three years probation.

But, what led to the initial allegation of attempted first degree homicide?

Nearly a year-and-a-half earlier, on December 11, 1988, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published the first article of a three-part series (parts two and three) that detailed years-long sexual abuse committed by Reverend Thomas Adamson. Much of the series focused on Adamson’s abuse of Gregory J. Riedle (the Minnesota man who traveled to Wisconsin in May 1990), how he groomed Riedle, and how multiple institutions, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as well as the Diocese of Winona (renamed as the Diocese of Winona-Rochester), concealed Adamson’s behavior from the public. Using this three-part series, legal documents, and additional publicly available documentation, this case study will examine sexual grooming, post-abuse maintenance by a perpetrator, and institutional cover-up that culminated in Riedle’s arrest for attempted homicide approximately 13 years after he was first abused by Adamson.

Grooming

It appears Adamson employed several sexual grooming tactics in his abuse of Riedle. These tactics included secluding the boy, showing favoritism, desensitizing the victim, and grooming the community around Riedle, specifically his parents. In addition, Riedle expressed reverential fear/religious duress in one instance, and Adamson utilized post-abuse maintenance, which may have exacerbated Riedle’s fear and duress.

Adamson first abused Riedle during the summer of 1977 after he began going on recreational outings with other altar boys from St. Thomas Aquinas parish and Adamson. As noted in the Star-Tribune article, “As the summer progressed, the outings became a little more frequent and exclusive. Greg became Father Tom’s favorite and the boy looked forward to spending time with the priest.” Outings included basketball, swimming, and racquetball. Riedle reported that he was first abused by Adamson in a YMCA sauna after playing basketball. It was just the two of them in the 10-foot-by-10-foot room. Not only did Adamson seclude Riedle, he also desensitized the boy to sexual touch before abusing him by asking him “if he ever played with himself.”

As the summer progressed, Adamson continued to abuse Riedle in the YMCA steam room. According to the Star Tribune account, he also abused the boy “in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas church, the rectory, gas station restrooms, motel and country club saunas and pools…[his] car.” Further, “One of the most convenient locations was a little room in the church basement” and that Adamson “wanted and got sex right after the last mass on Sunday” at least once.

For the most part, Adamson’s seclusion of Riedle in order to abuse him was coupled with Adamson’s grooming of Riedle’s family, especially his mother who was “proud” of her son’s decision to become an altar boy and “pleased” with the relationship he had with Adamson. Mrs. Riedle noted that Adamson would call a couple weekends per month to invite the boy for an outing and socialize with Mr. and Mrs. Riedle when picking him up. Even after the Riedle’s moved, Mrs. Riedle said Adamson would call midweek to invite the boy to stay with him for the weekend; “We didn’t think anything of it…he would actually be gone like for three days,” Mrs. Riedle reported. As noted in the Star Tribune article, it was not just the Riedle family that was fooled, Adamson “appealed to many of the parents of the parishes he served” because he appeared willing to minister to the youths in the parish and he “seemed to really care for them.”

Adamson sexually abused Riedle for nearly two years until the spring of 1979. In 1978, the Riedle family, as mentioned, moved to a location further away from Adamson’s parish. In doing so, they switched to a parish closer to their home. Despite the distance, Adamson maintained weekend contact with Riedle, as explained above. When discussing the nearly two-year cycle of abuse with a reporter from the Star Tribune, Riedle said something akin to the feeling of religious duress and reverential fear that other victims of clergy sexual abuse have reported:

“I was scared; I still didn’t know, all through it. There was something in me that said this isn’t right. But at the same time there was part of me that said this feels good. It doesn’t feel right; it feels right…It was like, you just trust him. There was no question about that. He was an authority figure that you look up to and trust. Not like a parent. That’s how I felt. Someone I looked up to, someone I trusted. I had no reason, at the time, not to.”

As mentioned, this feeling of reverential fear and religious duress may have been exacerbated by Adamson after he first abused Riedle via what has been coined post-abuse maintenance; a grooming tactic that occurs after the initial abuse has taken place. After the first abuse episode in the YMCA sauna in 1977, Adamson told Riedle, “Don’t tell anybody…You’ll get in trouble, and so will I.” Riedle did not tell anybody about the victimization until 1984.

Church Cover-Up and Concealment

Adamson was ordained in 1958. He was placed on leave of absence on December 22, 1984. According to Bishop Accountability, during the intervening years Adamson was alleged to have sexually abused at least 37 children, while some estimate that he sexually abused approximately 100 boys. While an accurate number may never be known, official documentation suggests that church leaders in both the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis knew of Adamson’s behavior and actively concealed it from parishioners and the public at large; empirical research (Spraitz & Bowen, 2018; Spraitz, Bowen, & Bowers, 2016) suggests other Catholic dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, engaged in extensive sexual abuse cover-up.

The following examines a timeline of diocesan concealment of Adamson’s actions.

1958: Ordained. Attorney Jeff Anderson “slowly began to piece together a theory that [Adamson] had begun sexually abusing teenage boys soon after the priest’s ordination.” Anderson said, “We had reason to believe that the archdiocese knew about this guy and that it had happened before.”

1964: Bishop Fitzgerald (Winona) told Adamson to “control his sexual behavior.”

1967: Bishop Fitzgerald ordered Adamson to see a Rochester psychiatrist; the psychiatrist was a member of Adamson’s congregation. After 15 sessions (3 months), Adamson “was transferred once again to another part of the diocese.”

1973: Adamson confronted by Bishop Watters (Winona-Rochester) “after the bishop was told a rumor about sexual misconduct involving the priest and a Rochester youth.”

1974 (spring): Adamson began seeing the Rochester psychiatrist again; psychiatrist recommended Adamson “seek therapy in Hartford at the Institute of Living.”

1974 (June): Began seeing Father Kenneth Pierre for psychological counseling.

Late 1974: Brother of an abuse victim (from 1961) called Bishop Watters and gave an ultimatum: Remove Adamson immediately or the family would publicly disclose Adamson’s abuse in church while Adamson delivered his sermon. “On the eve of that Sunday in late 1974, [Adamson] resigned his duties at St. Francis parish.”

1975: Transferred to Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. From Bishop Accountability, “Bishop Watters is said to have asked the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese to take Adamson, alluding to “incidents” that occurred in “at least five different communities across the entire diocese…over a 15-year span.””

-“There were no restrictions put on him, and the half-million Roman Catholics in the archdiocese had no inkling of the abuse incidents.”

1976: Adamson stopped seeing Father Pierre for treatment. In June of 1976, Adamson was named associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas (this is where he met Riedle).

1977 (August): Mendota Heights/Inver Grove Heights incident. Adamson “was never prosecuted, nor was the incident discovered by his fellow priests, by his parishioners, by his superiors or any other authority in the archdiocese, where he worked, or the Diocese of Winona, where he had been ordained in 1958.” Adamson was not prosecuted by Dakota County authorities; they claimed the language of the law did not support an indecent liberties charge. Adamson’s case was passed to the city of Mendota Heights for prosecution as indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. “What happened next is anybody’s guess. No one seems to remember how or if the case was settled, and no record of it could be located in Dakota County.”

1970s Recap: From the Star Tribune, “Anderson estimates that as many as two dozen priests, nuns, bishops and parish workers eventually learned of [Adamson’s] sexual problems. He said that at least 15 priests in the Winona Diocese knew in the 1970s of abuse by Adamson.”

-“As [Adamson’s] career progressed from assignment to assignment in the Winona Diocese, rumors about his misconduct began to filter back to his superiors—and that often provoked reassignment.”

1980 (November): A fellow priest reported Adamson for molesting a boy at Immaculate Conception parish in Columbia Heights. Adamson was summoned to the chancery; he confessed to Father Robert Carlson (Carlson later became bishop). Adamson “was asked to leave his parish position and instructed to enter treatment, which he later did. But according to a signed affidavit…the parents of the eighth-grade boy also were told that this was an isolated incident. The family was not told later when archdiocese officials consulted with one of [Adamson’s] therapists, Father Kenneth Pierre, who told Carlson that “there have been other incidents of this nature.””

1981 (February): After 19 days of inpatient therapy at a Minneapolis hospital, Adamson was reassigned to Church of the Risen Savior in Burnsville as associate pastor.

1982 (October; though not learned of until March 1983): A mother alerted the archdiocese that her son was sexually abused by Adamson in a whirlpool of a Burnsville athletic facility. “No one in the archdiocese told her about the 1980 incident involving [Adamson] and the boy at Immaculate Conception.”

From the Star Tribune, “the archdiocese considered the incident a violation of its 1981 behavior agreement, which was an unwritten understanding between [Adamson] and his supervisors. Subsequently, the agreement was put in writing and signed by [Adamson] and Archbishop Roach.” Despite this, Adamson was associate pastor at Church of the Risen Savior until late-1984/early-1985.

1986 (August): Meeting of Carlson, Roach, and Watters. “In the Villa Maria Academy south of Red Wing, Minn.…the three men discussed who knew what and at what point they knew it, according to a later deposition by Carlson.”

-Attorney Jeff Anderson, who was not at the meeting, said, “They met for one purpose: to discuss the fact that they were pointing the finger at each other and to resolve their differences.”

From 1988 news story: “Bishop Carlson…said, “It’s unfair if they just take it from hindsight and apply kind of a 20-20 vision to it.” Using hindsight, people argue that the church didn’t do enough, but, he said, “We did try to do something…””

-However: “On Friday (July 6, 1984), I (Bishop Carlson) called Bishop Watters to inform him of the possible legal exposure.”

1984: “In the same memo it was disclosed that [Adamson] didn’t get along with the priest who then supervised him in Burnsville and that there was an archdiocese file on [Adamson] that contained information about his alleged sexual involvement with another boy in 1982.”

1984: “Fearing scandal, Carlson addressed the church’s image in a recommendation to Roach…given the seriousness of our exposure, that the archdiocese posture itself in such a way that any publicity will be minimized. I would recommend that in cooperation with Bishop Watters, that Father Adamson be sent to the Paracletes in Albuquerque or to the House of Affirmation (treatment centers).”

Riedle was held accountable by the State of Wisconsin for his actions in May of 1990; Eau Claire Police arrested him a mere 12 hours after he got to the city and the courts imposed punishment. And, while Riedle is ultimately responsible for his behavior and decision-making that day, we are left to wonder if this would have happened if Adamson had been held accountable by the Diocese of Winona-Rochester or the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis decades earlier.

Unfortunately, we will never know the answer.

Manuscript in Journal of Sexual Aggression

In our summer update, we mentioned that the Journal of Sexual Aggression accepted our manuscript “Neutralisation and sexual abuse: A study of monks from one Benedictine Abbey.”

As of July 15, 2016, the article is available on the journal’s site. Please read it if you have a moment.

Currently, Jason and a team of two research assistants are analyzing additional files of credibly accused monks from the same abbey. In addition to identifying techniques of neutralization, they are assessing sexual grooming techniques used by the alleged offenders.

Summer 2016 Update

The CARC has spent that past four months finalizing manuscripts and starting new research projects. It is our intent to provide more frequent updates and posts to this site in the future. Given the slew of news on clergy abuse throughout the country lately, it is incumbent on us to use our platform more often.

That said, we have several updates:

  1. Last week, the Journal of Sexual Aggression accepted our manuscript, “Neutralisation and Sexual Abuse: A Study of Monks from One Benedictine Abbey,” for publication. The manuscript, co-authored by Jason Spraitz, Kendra Bowen, and Shavonne Arthurs, details the neutralization techniques used by monks and others affiliated with St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and discusses the concealment of allegations from civil authorities and the general public. Once published, we’ll link to the abstract and provide a copy on our ResearchGate pages, if allowable.

    A couple notes about the process that resulted in the publication of this manuscript:

    First, the editorial staff at the Journal of Sexual Aggression was a great group to work with during the review process, which included two “revise and resubmit” decisions. Despite this, the review process took less than three months and we received comments from two reviewers each time; when the reviewers’ comments conflicted with each other, the outstanding managing editor provided sound guidance and advice. Compared to some other review experiences, working with JSA was a breath of fresh air.

    Second, Kendra and I want to publicly thank Shavonne for her work on this project. Currently, Shavonne is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A faculty member recommended her to us and she did a splendid job as our research assistant and co-author.

  2. In equally exciting news, we have completed a research project that we first reported on last September. Jason and Louisa examined the files of 16 priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. Data suggested the presence of widespread sexual grooming that was similar to grooming behaviors used by non-clergy offenders. But, there was another grooming tactic used that was unique to clergy offenders. Louisa created a poster and presented it at the annual Celebration of Research and Creative Activity extravaganza at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. Then, with the help of Kendra, the three of us co-authored a manuscript about this project that is currently under publication consideration; because of this, we are purposefully providing limited information about the manuscript.
  3. On March 6, 2016, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a Letter to the Editor that Jason wrote. The letter was in response to the investigation of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Altoona-Johnstown and expressed the need for more transparency and accountability when allegations of sexual abuse are made.
  4. In February, we reported that we applied for an SREU grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. The reviewers were favorable towards our proposal and ORSP awarded $6,300 to Jason and two students. They are examining sexual grooming tactics and techniques of neutralization used by 18 credibly accused monks from St. John’s Abbey. The ongoing research is an offshoot of the research that was just accepted for publication in JSA in which files for 5 monks were analyzed. The two student research assistants have started coding the files.
  5. In an effort to explore more ways to disseminate this research publicly, Jason will participate in a summer writing residency focused on podcasting. The residency is through the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild.

Update – Early Spring 2016

  1. In early-December, we received a “revise and resubmit” from the editorial staff of the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. Reviews were mainly positive with several astute suggestions of ways to improve the manuscript. By late-December, we resubmitted a revised draft of the manuscript for publication consideration; we are still awaiting a final decision.
  1. In our post from September 14, 2015, I reported that a student and I received a Student-Faculty Research Collaboration grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. Over the course of the fall semester, our student collaborator coded the content of 16 unsealed priest files from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. Preliminary analysis of the data suggests a high rate of grooming behaviors by accused priests from this particular diocese. Currently, our collaborator is working on a literature review of sexual grooming research as well as preparing a poster for the annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity at UWEC. In addition to the poster, we plan to prepare a manuscript for publication consideration and present findings at the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association meeting in September 2016.
  1. Earlier in February, I submitted a Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates grant proposal to ORSP at UWEC. If awarded this grant, I will work with another student collaborator during the upcoming summer to analyze 18 recently unsealed files from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Five files from the abbey were made available in 2014, yet it wasn’t until mid-January 2016 that all 18 files were unsealed. We intend to investigate patterns of justification and deflection of self-blame as well as continue looking for grooming behaviors and other themes that are apparent.
  1. On February 11, 2016, the Editorial Board of The New York Times published an editorial titled “Tracing the bishops’ culpability in the child abuse scandal.” It was a well-crafted and articulated argument for more accountability in the Church. In response to this editorial, I submitted a “Letter to the Editor” that went unpublished; it is presented below in its entirety:

“To the Editor:
The New York Times editorial “Tracing the Bishops’ Culpability” (February 11) was timely when considering other various media reports that the Vatican is advising newly-appointed bishops that they do not have to report sexual abuse by clergy to legal authorities. This mandate is alarming for several reasons, but it is especially distressing because it upholds the decades-long modus operandi under which sexually abusive priests were allowed to continue their criminal behaviors while their superiors willfully disregarded the safety of children and the needs of the victims. At this point, I await the response of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to these instructions. As part of mandatory reporting statutes, more than 20 U.S. states specifically require clergy to disclose knowledge of sexual abuse to legal authorities. Ignoring these statutory requirements would deepen the wounds caused by generations of abuse and allow it to continue unrestrained for the foreseeable future.”

  1. Congratulations to the Globe Spotlight Team as well as the writers, producers, actors, director, and staff involved with the film Spotlight for their big win last night at the Academy Awards. From a professional standpoint, I’ll never be able to measure how instrumental the Globe Spotlight Team has been to my academic research; this is the article that started it all. But, more importantly, their willingness to expose abuses within the powerful Catholic Church has affected change and given voice to those previously silenced. Thank you for the work you do.

Research Update – September 2015

Updates from the Clergy Abuse Research Consortium (CARC) have been few and far between as we transition into a new semester. That said, we have a few things in the pipeline:

  1. Jason will present at the annual conference of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association in Chicago in late September. The presentation, titled “Preliminary analysis of priests’ perceptions of the sexual abuse scandal,” will discuss what we have learned so far from survey data gathered from clergymen in three Wisconsin dioceses over the past six weeks. Admittedly, survey response rates are lower than expected, but clergy in the sample were mailed a reminder postcard within the last 10 days with the hope of increasing participation. Once finalized, we will post our key early findings.
  2. Kendra and Jason will present at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Washington DC in November. The presentation, titled “Examining diocesan sexual abuse files: A look at priests, church leaders, cover-up, and blame minimization,” will give an overview of the research that we have conducted on files from Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, and St. John’s Abbey, as well as concurrently on-going research with files from Joliet (to be discussed below).
  3. In our post from July 16, I mentioned that I submitted a Student-Faculty Research Collaboration grant proposal to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UWEC. In late-August, I learned that my student collaborator and I were awarded the grant in the amount of $1,998 (all money going to the student-researcher for her work on the project). This funding will help us analyze 16 publicly available files of priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet in Illinois who have been accused of sexual abuse of minors; these 16 files contain nearly 3,000 pages of documentation. As has been the case with most of our research to this point, we will code all instances of neutralization, justification, and deflection of self-blame by accused priests and others. We also will look for trends associated with offenders’ grooming of victims and all other victimization trends contained in the files. We hope to give our student collaborator ample opportunity to contribute to manuscript preparation and conference presentation, including MCJA in September 2016, the annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA) in April 2016 at UWEC, and perhaps the Posters in the Rotunda event that showcases undergraduate research and is held every spring in the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin.
  4. The manuscript that we submitted to the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse remains under review; hopefully positive news from that submission is on the horizon.

Letter to the Editor – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In early-August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the creditors committee for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee felt the $21M settlement between the archdiocese and victim-survivors of priest sexual abuse was “the lesser of two evils” and that the committee felt “forced into a corner” in agreeing to the terms. The chairperson of the creditors committee also indicated that the archdiocese sought to throw out as many cases as possible. Altogether, 570 victims filed claims and the archdiocese agreed to compensate 330 of them; the chairperson noted, “We had to fight to get that number to 330.”

In reading this account, I was reminded of a statement in one of the priest files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that we analyzed. The file contained information about an allegation of abuse against a priest who was already on court-ordered probation. In the file, an unnamed diocesan official wrote of “keeping the lid” on the accusation – essentially not telling anybody – so that formal law enforcement and other parishioners and parents would not be notified.

The connection between the past instance of covering up abuse and the current chairperson’s perception of the archdiocese’s legal strategy inspired me to write a Letter to the Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (As an aside, I have penned a commentary to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a letter to the editor of the New York Times that went unpublished, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything to come from my submission.) However, I was contacted by a representative of the Journal Sentinel yesterday and notified that the Letter would be published today.

Here is a link to the Letters page; my letter is the second one down: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/letters-b99562485z1-322885961.html

Research Update – July 2015

On July 13, 2015, cover letters were sent to 240 clergymen serving the three Catholic dioceses in the western and northern regions of Wisconsin. The letter briefly described the project, “The purpose of the questionnaire is to ask you about your perceptions and opinions of the allegations of sexual abuse that were directed towards the Church within the past 10-15 years,” and the respondents’ thoughts about the effectiveness of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in keeping minors safe. Standard language about the voluntariness of participation and maintaining confidentiality of the participants also was included; this information is expanded upon in the Informed Consent that will be mailed with the survey in approximately 10 days.

Today, July 16, 2015, I placed the order for the Informed Consent and Surveys from University Printing Services at UWEC. In addition to expanding the voluntariness and confidentiality sections, the Informed Consent also discusses the risks and benefits for the respondents. Members of the IRB at UWEC, especially Chair Axelrod, were very helpful in making suggestions for this section. Initial concerns that the IRB raised focused on my ability to identify participants based on certain responses. To assuage these concerns, the following language was added to the Informed Consent, “There are no identifiers on the survey, though some demographic questions may have the potential for indirect identification. I will not know who returns surveys and I have no interest in connecting responses to specific individuals.” Additionally, Chair Axelrod wrote the following, “The IRB concluded that you are required by law to contact Wisconsin Child Protective Services should details of sexual abuse of a minor (or suspected sexual abuse of a minor) be reported by a subject…The IRB would like your thoughts on this issue, including whether language in the Informed Consent form should state that should a subject identify himself or someone else, by name, that suggests some abuse of a minor, that you, as the researcher, are obligated to report the incident to Child Protective Services.”

After thinking about that question, I decided to add language to the Informed Consent detailing my obligation to report instances of sexual abuse of a minor to Child Protective Services. The language that I added is direct, but I tried to word it in a way that would not cause somebody to not reply. This section of the Informed Consent reads, “Please keep in mind that the Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire has concluded that I am required by law to contact Wisconsin Child Protective Services if details of sexual abuse (or suspected sexual abuse) of a minor is reported by a participant in this research, though no survey questions ask about specific instances of abuse.”

We have another project on the horizon. As I’ve written on multiple occasions, UWEC is renowned for the faculty-student research opportunities that are available for undergraduate students. Annually, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UWEC offers the Student-Faculty Research Collaboration grant opportunity; first call for proposals was due yesterday, July 15. Along with one of the Criminal Justice Program’s top students, I hope to retrospectively analyze content from the files of accused priests in the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. This analysis will mirror prior research that the Clergy Abuse Research Consortium has conducted on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and with another entity (unnamed because the manuscript is under review).

Conducting and Presenting Clergy Abuse Research with Student Researchers

Each year, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire sponsors a university-wide week-long event dubbed: Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA). As a condition of the Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant that we received last summer, my student researchers had to present at CERCA this spring. Preston graduated in December, so the responsibility fell to Byron. With a little help, he created the poster below. The poster details the work that Preston and Byron did examining the use of techniques of neutralization in priest files from archdioceses in Los Angeles and Chicago.

CERCA 2015 Poster
The pair also traveled with me to the annual Midwestern Criminal Justice Association (MCJA) conference in Chicago last fall to present a poster detailing the preliminary findings of our work.

Our abstract from CERCA 2015 can be found in the abstract book. Our abstract from MCJA 2014 can be viewed in the meeting program.

Eventually, Kendra and I will conduct a full analysis of this data, much like we have done with data from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and St. John’s Abbey.

What We’re Working On – Summer 2015

1. Kendra, Shavonne Arthurs (a doctoral candidate in Criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania), and I recently submitted a manuscript for publication consideration to the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. Because the manuscript is under review, I won’t detail its content here.

2. Thanks to a generous University Research and Creative Activity grant and stipend from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, we will be able to conduct survey research with current clergymen. Our plan is to mail cover letters describing the project to all ordained clergymen in three dioceses in Wisconsin by mid-July. We will send informed consent guidelines and the questionnaires to our sample one week later. Depending on the early response rate, preliminary analysis of the data will be presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association in late-September.

Unpublished Commentary Submitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Last Friday I submitted a “Commentary” to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As is the case with a recent Letter to the Editor of The New York Times, the commentary hasn’t been published (and I don’t think it will be). So, I’m sharing it here:

Within the past week, two noteworthy events occurred in the ongoing battle to hold local diocesan-level leaders accountable for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. First, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for mishandling abuse claims and its failure to protect children from predatory priests; Choi noted that he will file civil charges too (“Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis charged with ‘failing to protect’ clergy abuse victims;” June 6). Second, Pope Francis announced the creation of a Vatican tribunal that will listen to cases against bishops who negligently failed to take appropriate action against priests and others in their diocese who sexually abused minors, though specific policies and punishments haven’t been solidified (“Pope creates tribunal for cases of bishops who fail to protect children from pedophile priests;” June 10).

The charges against the Archdiocese and the creation of the tribunal are important first steps in increased accountability for the Catholic Church, especially its leaders. In a 2008 article from Criminal Justice and Behavior, Alex Piquero and his coauthors noted that critics of the Church have long-perceived its officials as “secretive and inaccessible” even after the creation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by U.S. Bishops in 2002. With the new tribunal and his July 2014 apology to six victims of sexual abuse, it appears Pope Francis is trying to change that narrative. Though, more action must be taken by district attorneys throughout the United States because the culpability of upper-level officials is not unique to leaders from St. Paul and Minneapolis; it has been a systemic problem for generations in dioceses throughout the U.S.

Kendra Bowen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University, and I have conducted multiple retrospective analyses of Church documents from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN (Diocese of Saint Cloud). We also have conducted preliminary analyses of files from the archdioceses in Chicago and Los Angeles. In one analysis of the archdiocese in Milwaukee that Bowen and I conducted (along with James Bowers of Saginaw Valley State University), there were many instances of Church officials actively dissuading families or others within the Church from contacting personnel boards or law enforcement officers. The most shocking example involved a priest on court-ordered probation who allegedly violated that probation by molesting a young boy while fishing. In the priest’s file was correspondence from an unnamed diocesan official who wrote, “I would try to keep the lid on the thing, so no police record would be made.” Later in the entry the official wrote of attempts to convince the victim’s mother to not file a report with local law enforcement. Documentation from St. John’s Abbey reveals a similar decades-long pattern of concealment by Church leaders. In a 1976 letter from the Abbot to the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he expresses hope that details of a sexually abusive monk do not become public so that a scandal does not ensue. In 1990, the Chancellor sent a memo to several administrators that detailed allegations against a monk. The Chancellor warned of the negative ramifications that would come if the accusations were publicized; namely, one of the affected parishes was set to begin a capital fund drive in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Likely, the Chancellor did not want to disturb fundraising efforts.

In addition to containing evidence of cover-ups by high-ranking diocesan leaders, these files also detail the extent priests and Church officials went to in order to deflect blame for these crimes. Files show that in many instances, those affiliated with the Church would deny responsibility for the crimes that occurred. In some cases, it was the priests who attempted to justify their behaviors by blaming drugs, alcohol, their parents, or their immaturity. Yet, more systemically across dioceses, Church administrators did not attempt to hold offenders legally responsible for their crimes. Instead, the prevailing response was to send an abusive priest away for treatment and then transfer him to another parish, while failing to notify those in the new parish about past allegations. It can be hypothesized that by failing to hold individual priests responsible for their behaviors immediately, the bishops and other leaders engendered a sense of impregnability in the priests that led to future offending and countless victims. For this reason, the decisions by two wholly different oversight agencies – the Ramsey County Attorney and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – to address the historical lack of accountability that dioceses and their leaders are subjected to, comes as welcome news. I am hopeful that more prosecuting agencies follow Choi’s path and that the Pope’s newly-formed tribunal effectively punishes leaders whose failure to lead led to disastrous criminal consequences.