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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.