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Nation/World

Suit seeks to hold Vatican at fault for abuse by U.S. priests

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt speaks July 30, 2014, at his office in St. Paul, Minn. Three brothers who were sexually abused by a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Vatican, claiming the Holy See bears responsibility because the case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican's former ambassador to the U.S.
St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt speaks July 30, 2014, at his office in St. Paul, Minn. Three brothers who were sexually abused by a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Vatican, claiming the Holy See bears responsibility because the case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican's former ambassador to the U.S.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Three brothers who were sexually abused by a priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Vatican, claiming the Holy See bears responsibility because the case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S.

The lawsuit attempts to trace a direct line from clergy sex abuse victims to the Vatican, through Minnesota church officials. Luke, Stephen and Ben Hoffman were abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, roughly between 2009 and 2012.

“I have too many nieces and nephews to let something like this happen to anybody else,” Stephen Hoffman said about his decision to come forward.

Nienstedt and the former ambassador, Carlo Maria Vigaṇ, have previously denied the allegations raised in the lawsuit. The Vatican’s U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, had no immediate comment. In the past Lena has described sex abuse lawsuits naming the Vatican as a defendant as publicity stunts.

Two other men who are among those suing the Vatican say they were molested by Catholic priests, one in Minnesota and one in California. Those two men sued the Vatican separately within the last year, but their attorney Jeff Anderson withdrew their cases in anticipation of Tuesday’s lawsuit. Anderson had also sued the Vatican on two prior occasions without success.

Anderson said he believes the new lawsuit has a better chance of succeeding because he’s made a more complete effort to document Vatican authority over Catholic clerics and to portray the church as a commercial enterprise.

The Hoffman brothers’ involvement also allowed him to bring in the issues surrounding Nienstedt, which he says are emblematic of how church leaders have covered up abuse.

“The body of evidence and the scope of the complaint is much broader and much more developed than the first time we litigated this,” Anderson said.

Because it has the status of a foreign nation, the Vatican is generally exempt from lawsuits in the United States. Exceptions to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act include wrongful acts committed against U.S. citizens and commercial activities undertaken by foreign nations.

The new lawsuit seeks monetary damages, but the plaintiffs said truth is the goal. The lawsuit asks for court orders requiring the Vatican to turn over names of “credibly accused” priests whose cases have been referred to the Holy See, along with related records. It also seeks names of church leaders who have been implicit in covering up abuse.

Ben Hoffman said the church needs to be more transparent and “live in the truth.”

“I’m still Catholic. I have a deep love for the church. I have a deep love for my faith, it means the world to me. But the Vatican – we have to fix this,” he said, his eyes watering.

Before the Hoffman brothers were abused, church officials received complaints about Wehmeyer’s inappropriate sexual activities. In 2004, he was cited for loitering in a Minnesota park known as a place to meet for anonymous sex, and he lied to police about his identity, the lawsuit says.

Wehmeyer was later evaluated at a treatment center for troubled priests and diagnosed with a sexual disorder. The archbishop at the time, Harry Flynn, moved him from West St. Paul to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and assigned him to administrative duties.

But in 2009, about the time Wehmeyer started abusing the Hoffman brothers, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor. According to the lawsuit, another official of the archdiocese cautioned Nienstedt – then newly installed as archbishop – about the promotion and informed him of Wehmeyer’s record, to no avail.

Over the next three years, Wehmeyer abused the Hoffman brothers during camping trips. The boys were in their mid-teens at the time. After the boys’ mother reported the abuse of at least two of her sons to police, Wehmeyer was arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.

The AP does not routinely name victims of sexual abuse, but the plaintiffs have chosen to make their names public.

Wehmeyer’s arrest led local prosecutors to file criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children. The charges were dropped in 2016 when the archdiocese admitted wrongdoing and agreed to meet with victims and adopt stronger measures to prevent clergy abuse.

Wehmeyer’s arrest also triggered the forced resignation of Nienstedt after the archdiocese retained a law firm to look into his supervision of Wehmeyer. The investigation alleged Nienstedt also had sexually harassed other priests and seminarians and had a “social relationship” with Wehmeyer.

Controversy surrounding Nienstedt escalated when a priest involved in the investigation wrote a memo saying that Vigaṇ ordered church officials to end the inquiry and instructed them to destroy a letter they wrote to him objecting to his directive.

Although the lawsuit states Vigaṇ’s alleged actions as fact, the former Vatican ambassador flatly denied them in a statement last year. “I never told anyone that (the law firm) should stop the inquiry, and I never ordered any document be destroyed,” he said. “Any statement to the contrary is false.”

In an effort to circumvent immunity normally given to foreign countries, the lawsuit argues that the church is a commercial enterprise, asserting that it provides services, including “pastoral guidance, education and counseling . . . in exchange for all or a portion of revenues collected from its members.”

The lawsuit also lists a series of international scandals where investigators found that church officials covered up for abusive priests, including those in Ireland, Australia, Guam, and Chile, adding that internal church documents require church officials to keep allegations of child sexual abuse secret. It also makes a sweeping argument that the Vatican exercises “unqualified power” over priests, bishops and cardinals and religious orders.

To illustrate this alleged global control, the lawsuit cites a November incident in which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops backed away from measures to hold bishops accountable for mishandling allegations of sexual abuse after the Vatican objected.

The Vatican has successfully contended that the world’s 414,000 priests are not its employees because they aren’t paid by Rome, don’t act on Rome’s behalf and aren’t controlled day-to-day by the pope.

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Rezendes reported from Boston.

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