Five clergy-abuse survivors, including three brothers abused by former St. Paul parish priest Curtis Wehmeyer, plan to sue the Vatican to release the names and files of all clergy who have sexually abused children.
The charges against Wehmeyer, who sexually abused the boys in his trailer parked at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, led to unprecedented criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failure to protect children.
It also led to the resignation of former archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.
The brothers will speak publicly for the first time at a news conference Tuesday in the office of St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has several lawsuits pending against the Vatican. The brothers are expected to demand greater sanctions against Nienstedt, who resigned in good standing.
Anderson announced plans to file the lawsuit and the Tuesday news conference in a news release Monday.
The lawsuit, to be filed Tuesday, asks that the Vatican release the names of more than 3,000 priests who have sexually abused children, as well as evidence and documentation. It is one of several lawsuits that abuse survivors represented by Anderson have filed against the Vatican.
At the news conference, Anderson said he will provide details of the lawsuit and introduce the plaintiffs. They include the brothers, who have not yet been named, as well as Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan and survivor Manuel Vega of California.
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 that any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Wehmeyer plead guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in connection with the abuse of two of the boys, and is serving five years in prison.
Pledging that clerical sexual abuse should “never happen again,” Pope Francis on Thursday issued a sweeping new law aimed at holding leadership more accountable while overhauling how the Roman Catholic Church deals with accusations of abuse and coverup.
The rules — a mix of common-sense requirements and more technical provisions — are the church’s first major step to formalize all stages of fielding and investigating abuse claims, a process that has previously been subject to improvisation.
When the rules come into force June 1, priests and nuns will be required for the first time to report abuse accusations to church authorities. Dioceses will be given a year to set up offices or other systems for receiving abuse complaints while offering protection for victims and whistleblowers. And perhaps most significantly, a new method will be used to investigate complaints of abuse or coverup against bishops and other higher-ups — an attempt to address one of the scandal-plagued church’s long-standing trouble spots.
“We must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past,” Francis wrote in the introduction to the edict.
The rules are Francis’s latest attempt to contend with an abuse crisis that has eroded the reputation of the church and his papacy. The Vatican document comes nearly three months after Francis hosted a landmark clerical abuse summit in Rome and pledged concrete action to address the scourge.
“This is a very strong signal,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a Vatican official who has investigated abuse cases. “Nobody in the leadership is above the law.”
But some church watchdogs said the new rules fall short, because they keep the handling of cases in-house.
Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the church erred in thinking it could eradicate abuse by changing the rules but still relying on “the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years.”
The rules also do not address the contentious question of how to punish clerics convicted of abuse or coverup in church trials.
The law is in place for a three-year trial run and could be changed after that, depending on how the new rules play out. It is unclear, for instance, how the church will safeguard whistleblowers and whether an institution known for protecting its own can alter a culture through legal changes.
Predictions among experts on Thursday ranged widely over which aspects of the law, if any, would be most transformative.
One major aspect, though, regards the policing of bishops — an issue that has long confounded the church. Bishops are answerable only to the pope, and for decades they have been able to escape rigid oversight.
The new provisions outline a way in which bishops can help police their own ranks, the first time such a system has been put in place.
The rules lean on a miniature, de facto hierarchy within regions. If a bishop is accused of abuse or coverup, a metropolitan bishop — the figure who heads the largest regional diocese — can begin looking into the case with the backing of the Holy See. The metropolitan bishop is supposed to work on a set timetable and deliver his findings to the Vatican.
But there are exceptions to this system. If a metropolitan bishop himself is accused, another bishop in the region is chosen to investigate, based on seniority. And the Vatican has the option to choose somebody else entirely. In all cases, lay experts can be involved, though it is not a requirement.
The steps for handling complaints of abuse and coverup against bishops borrow heavily from a proposal made by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during February’s summit on abuse. Cupich is a close Francis ally.
In presenting his ideas, Cupich said that “this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops.”
The laws also require all priests and nuns to swiftly report allegations of abuse or coverup to religious authorities. Previously, there was nothing on paper mandating them to report, though some were compelled by their conscience.
Although the clerics aren’t explicitly required to report abuse allegations to police — a contentious issue within the church — the laws do state that church officials should comply with “any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”
The guidelines cover cases of sexual abuse not only against minors, but also against vulnerable adults and seminarians who are abused by someone in power. Over the past year, the church has faced an onslaught of cases in which higher-ups have been implicated — a notable shift from earlier decades, when the focus was primarily on individual priests.
In the United States, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked earlier this year after a church trial found him guilty of abuse. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is appealing his criminal conviction for the sexual assault of two boys. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted in March of failing to report abuse accusations, the first time a church higher-up has faced criminal punishment in such a case
The guidelines released Thursday could provide a starting point for discussions among U.S. bishops, who are preparing for an assembly in June. At a prior meeting in November, those U.S. Catholic leaders were set to vote on measures that would improve the handling of abuse cases. But the Vatican, controversially, intervened to stop the vote.
In a statement Thursday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the United States already has a framework in place that involves zero tolerance, the use of lay experts and a stipulation for reporting abuse to civil authorities. U.S. Catholics, he said, are positioned “readily to bring the Holy Father’s instructions to action.”
DiNardo said national-level bishops’ conferences still have the “latitude” to enact their own measures.
“In publishing this new law, which is applicable to the Church throughout the world, Pope Francis has made clear that protection and healing must reach all of God’s children,” DiNardo said.
On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.
But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.
It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.
Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”
The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.
“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.
Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.
And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.
But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.
She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”
St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.
Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.
St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”
Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.
Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.
“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.
When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.
“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”
These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.
At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.
“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.
St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.
Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.
Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.
For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.
“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”
St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”
“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”
In 1995, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an internal church study on child abuse. The two-volume study surveyed bishops in more than 100 dioceses nationwide about their use of treatment centers to assess and care for priests believed to be sexually abusing children.
The result: 87% of bishops (127 out of 145 dioceses surveyed) reported using treatment centers for clergy accused of child abuse.
Two decades later, following the August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church — one of three released by the state attorney general since early 2000 — dioceses in multiple states and at least one state attorney general have disclosed their own lists of credibly accused priests.
The Pennsylvania report focuses on many small towns throughout the state. One of those towns — mentioned more than a dozen times — is an outlier. It’s a town you wouldn’t think to look for unless, like me, you were born and raised there.
In 2002, around the same time the Boston Globe published its bombshell report on sexual abuse of children in Archdiocese of Boston, I was a freshman at Bishop Shanahan, a Catholic high school in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember paying much attention to the Boston Globe report. Nor was I aware that, during this same time, multiple priests accused of child abuse were being sent to a clergy treatment center directly across the street from my high school.
Downingtown is home to the longest-running behavioral health facility in North America still in use by the Catholic Church. It’s a place where — according to the reports — at least 50 priests accused of molesting children in Pennsylvania were referred for evaluation and treatment.
That treatment time was often referred to in their employment history as “sick leave,” and many priests were inevitably discharged and permitted to return to active ministry. Others were transferred to church-run retirement homes where they received fully paid benefits. The church commonly called that retreat a “life of prayer and penance.”
St. John Vianney Center
Founded in 1946, the St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown is staffed by clergy, psychologists, and nurses. It offers inpatient and outpatient services for behavioral and emotional issues, addiction, compulsive behaviors, and weight management. It is fully funded and administered under the purview of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
In detail, the grand jury report — much like the 1995 USCCB study — offers rare insight into the church’s use of “treatment” centers, the psychiatric facilities for clergy with addiction, depression, and sexual disorders, among other conditions. According to the grand jury report, the Catholic Church used these treatment centers to “launder accused priests, provide plausible deniability, and permit hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.”
The report goes on further to state that Catholic bishops relied on three treatment centers in particular: Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico; St. Luke’s in Suitland, Maryland; and St. John
Vianney Center. All three remain open.
Downingtown, less than an hour south of Philadelphia, is no stranger to scandal involving the church. Most recently, in 2017, a pastor at the nondenominational Calvary Fellowship Church, across the street from Downingtown East High School, pleaded guilty to institutional sex assault, corruption of minors, and child
endangerment after sexually assaulting and impregnating a teenage girl. He was sentenced to up to six years in prison.
Five years earlier, Monsignor William Lynn — who was serving at St. Joseph’s parish across the street from Downingtown West High School — became the first high-ranking U.S. Catholic Church official to be convicted of covering up clergy sex abuse. In addition to three priests and a parochial school teacher, Lynn was
charged and convicted of one count of endangering the welfare of a child. He is now free after serving nearly three years of his three- to six-year sentence. He may face another trial on the charges this year.
St. Joseph’s Church in Downingtown remains the second largest parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The recently renovated facade, with its towering white steeple, sits just off Route 322. Every Sunday, parishioners fill the parking lot before Mass. Every summer, the same lot is transformed into the annual Community Festival: a five-day carnival that is a hallmark of the small suburb.
On the opposite side of town is St. John Vianney Center. Unlike St. Joseph’s parish, on display as a beacon to area Catholics, the treatment center is hidden from public view. It sits at the end of a long driveway at the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and nestled between a country club and Bishop Shanahan High School across the street.
The only clue toward its existence is a small sign outside the entrance. It’s a fitting appearance for a place shrouded in a culture of secrecy characteristic of the church itself.
A look at two cases
One of the four men charged along with Lynn in 2012 was the Rev. Edward Avery, who received treatment at St. John Vianney over the course of four days from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 1992. Following his evaluation, the treatment center recommended further in-patient care. Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who had allowed Avery to remain in active ministry for nearly 11 months after his victim first reported the abuse to the archdiocese, approved the recommendation.
Avery was discharged from St. John Vianney on Oct. 22, 1993. In a memo to the church, Lynn shared the treatment center’s recommendations for Avery, which included a ministry excluding adolescents and with a population other than vulnerable minorities. The treatment center also advised that an aftercare team supervise Avery.
Yet Lynn recommended that Avery return to a parish with an elementary school, and Bevilacqua ultimately agreed. Avery would later testify before the grand jury that he continued to celebrate Mass, with altar servers, usually twice a weekend. He heard the confessions of children and was never told to restrict his activities with the youth of the parish.
The aftercare team that was supposed to be supervising Avery didn’t meet with him for more than a year after he ended treatment. Furthermore, the chaplain at St. John Vianney warned Lynn that Avery was “neglecting his duties” and instead “booking numerous disc jockey engagements” to gain access to children. Avery remained in active ministry until Dec. 5, 2003, a decade after first receiving treatment.
Avery’s case is one of many revealing exactly how the Catholic Church used St. John Vianney and other treatment centers to launder accused priests and, in some cases, return them to ministry in defiance of the treatment center’s own recommendations.
And while it’s worth noting that many of the allegations contained within the grand jury report are from decades ago, the case studies involving treatment centers cover allegations ranging from as early as the 1960s to as recent as 2004.
In a separate case, on April 22, 2004, diocesan documents show that Pennsylvania State Police searched the room of the Rev. Ronald Yarrosh — then assistant pastor at St. Ambrose in Schuylkill Haven — and found a “tremendous amount” of child pornography.
A week later, he was suspended from ministry and placed into treatment at St. John Vianney.
Across the street, I was just about to finish my sophomore year of high school.
On May 12, 2004, State Police filed charges: 110 counts of sexual abuse of children. Yarrosh was sentenced pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement that included three to 23 months in prison. He was discharged from St. John Vianney on May 3, 2005, and was later incarcerated for nearly four months until his release on Dec. 6, 2005, as a convicted and registered sex offender.
According to the grand jury report, upon his release, Yarrosh remained a member of the priesthood and the diocese granted him residence at a retirement home for priests in Orwigsburg — only a few miles from St. Ambrose parish where he had been arrested two years earlier.
In 2006, according to the grand jury report, Yarrosh took trips to New York City with a 7-year-old. Yarrosh was also found to be in possession of pornography in violation of his court supervision. He was sentenced to
four to 10 years in state prison. In June 2007, the Yarrosh was finally dismissed from the priesthood.
The current president of St. John Vianney, David Shellenberger, did not return requests for an interview.
Time for a mea culpa
I’ve driven past St. John Vianney hundreds of times in my life. I spent four years, every day, directly across the street. And yet, I never knew what that place was until I discovered it on my own, by accident, reading the grand jury report.
Much like the abusive priests written about in the reports, the truth was always hiding in plain sight. If the Catholic Church is serious about reform within the priesthood, it will do more than simply condemn the accused.
The church must acknowledge and recognize that bishops across the country have, for decades, institutionalized a culture that not only fosters abusive priests but also aims to protect the accused and silence victims. Simply put, the only reason child abuse has become an epidemic is because the Catholic Church has allowed it to happen.
What the #MeToo era revealed, beyond a litany of heinous acts committed by sexual predators, is that the allegations themselves rarely tell the full story. Instead — whether it be the Catholic Church or Michael Jackson or Jeffrey Epstein — the full story often involves those in power exploiting their influence and privilege to circumvent the criminal justice system and maintain the appearance of infallibility.
Perhaps the first step toward reform in the Catholic Church is a collective confirmation that members of the clergy are no more pious than anyone else. They are, in fact, only human — some of them deeply flawed — and all of them in need of self-reflection.
Perhaps, a life of prayer and penance is in order.