5 Takeaways from the Restorative Justice and Reconciliation Conference in the Twin Cities

By Brenda Andrews and Jim Cauley
Awake Leadership Team 

In January we attended a Restorative Justice and Reconciliation Conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis. The conference was the last requirement of a settlement agreement between the Ramsey County Attorney and the Archdiocese for serious civil and criminal charges in failing to meaningfully respond to numerous reports of sexual abuse of children. 

A history of the abuse and leadership crisis in St. Paul & Minneapolis

Before we offer our thoughts on the conference, some history: Archdiocesan canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger discovered hundreds of documents showing the ongoing coverup of abuse. After her efforts within the Archdiocese failed to force reform, she resigned in 2013 and took the information to Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR). In 2013 and 2014 MPR broadcast a major investigation of the abuse and leadership crisis in the Archdiocese. The series exposed substantial past failures of the Archdiocese to implement and follow the 2002 Dallas Charter, despite the fact that the diocese was led by a major architect of the charter. MPR revealed that for decades church leadership glossed over problems, failed to follow both civil law and church procedures, and failed to care for victims.

This led the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) to launch a 20-month investigation beginning in April 2014. The RCAO reviewed 170,000 documents and interviewed 50 witnesses and discovered that the statute of limitations hadn’t expired for crimes against three victims of priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who was convicted and sent to prison. This investigation revealed a long-standing pattern of wrongdoing by the Archdiocese as a corporation. In June 2015 the RCAO filed six criminal charges and a civil petition that alleged inexcusable institutional failure of the Archdiocese to protect children from abuse. Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned soon after criminal charges were filed. The Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis had previously filed a bankruptcy petition in January 2015. 

Shortly before Archbishop Bernard Hebda was appointed to replace Nienstedt, attorney Tim O’Malley was appointed director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment of the Archdiocese. A former judge and superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, O’Malley confirmed that the Archdiocese had not established adequate policies and procedures for handling abuse allegations under the 2002 Dallas Charter. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi recommended that the Archdiocese consider using restorative justice methods as part of the resolution, and Hebda agreed. The Archdiocese decided to try to resolve the charges by committing to change its culture and institutional practices instead of spending more money on litigation.

The Archdiocese and RCAO resolved all civil and criminal issues in two settlement agreements. The final agreement in July 2016 mandated that the Archdiocese take specific steps toward changing its culture, repairing the harm, and rebuilding trust. The RCAO, with an independent auditor, monitored these steps for four years. The Archdiocese posted on its website the interim and final reports from the RCAO, which include suggestions for continued improvement. The reports note that the Archdiocese now has highly credentialed, strongly committed lay leadership in charge of ministerial standards and safe environment.

Our 5 takeaways from the conference

Here are five main ideas about the sexual abuse crisis that we gleaned from the Restorative Justice and Reconciliation Conference. 

1. Historically opposed groups can work cooperatively. We saw Archbishop Hebda, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and Frank Meuers, Minnesota director of SNAP, speak at the same conference. Victim-survivors spoke about the impact of sexual abuse on their lives. One of Curtis Wehmeyer’s victims and his mother spoke. Each presentation made clear that these parties have moved over the past four years from a distrustful relationship to one that is cooperative and often collaborative, even if they do not agree on everything. 

One reason for the cooperation is Choi’s deep background in dealing with sex-trafficking and similar cases, as well as a commitment to more than retribution in achieving justice. The speakers also suggested that this was possible because Hebda committed publicly to a complete culture change, and noted that the Archdiocese has moved from an adversarial position to a cooperative one. Using restorative justice methods—required by the settlement agreement—also helped. The speakers emphasized that the Archdiocese’s willingness to go beyond the settlement agreement requirements helped re-establish trust. 

2. The Dallas Charter didn’t solve the problem of sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis said it implemented the Dallas Charter in the early 2000s; then-Archbishop Flynn was one of the chief architects of the 2002 Charter. But this did not stop abuse and coverup. The Archdiocese’s O’Malley explained that he discovered a gross failure to implement the Charter. Abusive priests were not reported to police and merely transferred to unsuspecting locations. A complete culture change with lay leadership was needed. The events in St. Paul and Minneapolis suggest that creating a safe environment must be a priority at the highest levels of the Archdiocese with a committed focus on continuous improvement to sustain change. Check-the-box compliance is not enough. People at every level—in the pews, on parish staffs, on archdiocesan review boards, and even at the head of the diocese—must be not only informed, but also engaged.

People express weariness with the continued media coverage of the abuse crisis and think it’s time to “move on.” [Choi] said this is an understandable desire, but it comes from a position of privilege, from people who have not themselves experienced the trauma of abuse.

3. The desire to “move on” comes from a place of privilege. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi noted that many people express weariness with the continued media coverage of the abuse crisis and think it’s time to “move on.”  He said this is an understandable desire, but it comes from a position of privilege, from people who have not themselves experienced the trauma of abuse. For victims of sexual assault there is no going back to the way things were; the harm is too big. Choi emphasized that “the work to protect [victims] is like a race without a finish line.” Instead of moving on from, we must move forward with victim-survivors of abuse.

In a presentation on restorative justice and healing, Janine Geske, retired justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, noted that “-ing” words are process words; therefore, forgiving and healing are not single events but ongoing processes. Choi and Geske’s comments confirmed our belief that rather than hindering the Church’s mission, reaching out to survivors is an essential part of the Church’s work. Forgetting and silence are not options.

4. The harm of sexual abuse ripples beyond survivors. Geske also spoke about the broad ripples of harm that affect not just the victim-survivors but also their families, parishes, communities, and other institutions. Priests and pastoral staffs need training not only to prevent abuse but also to offer ongoing trauma-informed responses to this expansive harm. Restorative justice programs and healing circles are one aspect of ongoing work to acknowledge the harm and promote healing. 

5. Can culture change be sustained? We left this conference wondering if this culture change can be sustained. O’Malley also raised this question. What happens when the Archbishop is replaced or O’Malley and his team retire? This work requires a committed bishop, strong, experienced lay leadership, and an engaged laity. What would stop the next bishop from eliminating the strong lay leadership in any archdiocese? We pray for an active commitment to ongoing improvement, fresh energetic training, and the accountability and transparency to sustain the culture change. 

Brenda Andrews and Jim Cauley are married and members of Three Holy Women Parish in Milwaukee.  Jim serves on the Advocacy Working Group for Awake, and Brenda serves on the Survivor Support Working Group. Brenda is a graduate of Boston College and Harvard Divinity School, and Jim graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s