On Monday, a St. Paul judge ordered the Diocese of Winona to release a list of names of 13 priests or former priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. That list includes five living priests from the Winona Diocese, none of whom are currently serving the church, and eight deceased priests, according to diocesan officials. Winona Diocese leaders indicated Tuesday they would comply with the court order.
The attorney seeking the release, Jeff Anderson, called the ruling a "turning point" for justice in priest abuse cases. Officials from the diocese said that the release might condemn accused individuals without a fair trial.
The diocese created the list in 2004 and argued against its release on Monday, as well as during previous court proceedings. The order requires the diocese to release the names, city of residence, ordination date, and assignment history of the 13 priests by December 17, and the same information by January 6, 2014, for any priests who have been credibly accused since 2004. The archdiocese of St. Paul is also required to release a list of 33 priests under the order. The lists are of "credibly accused" priests as determined by the diocese and archdiocese. The priests have not necessarily been found guilty. Diocese of Winona Director of Mission Advancement Joel Hennessy said that he was not privy to all instances of credible accusations since 2004, but acknowledged one such case involving a priest in Blue Earth. According to a Pioneer Press report, Father Leo Koppala was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl. A statement from Bishop John Quinn said that the diocese had not received any reports of sexual misconduct by Koppala prior to his arrest in that incident.
"There may not be a shocking number of new names" revealed in the list, but even one is incredibly important to victims and to public safety, said Anderson.
The court order for the release of the list came as part of a case accusing former Winona and St. Paul priest Thomas Adamson of sexually abusing a boy from 1964 to 1977. The suit, filed on behalf of a boy allegedly abused in St. Paul, claims that the diocese and archdiocese received reports from victims and even a confession from Adamson, but transferred him to new positions where he worked with children. Adamson had been named in several lawsuits alleging sexual abuse during his tenure at the diocese and archdiocese.
Debate over release
Anderson was able to convince the St. Paul judge to order the release by arguing that its secrecy constituted a public danger that could easily be remedied. For living priests on the list, "kids are at risk for future sexual abuse by any or all of these offenders until they are known," Anderson said.
"Public safety is imperative number one," but there are other reasons why the release is crucial to justice, Anderson continued. "When there is sexual abuse by a cleric, the victims often suffer in secrecy and self blame thinking they are the only ones and they are at fault. When you disclose [reports against abusers], that can encourage survivors suffering in silence to break the secret and vanquish the shame, report it to police, and come forward for help and healing." He added that "even deceased priests still leave a legacy in the psyches of their victims."
The release of these lists may also lead to the prosecution of more recent abuse cases, ones that have not exceeded the criminal statute of limitations, Anderson pointed out.
The church today is committed to safety and accountability, said Hennessy. In 2002 the Catholic church undertook a nationwide overhaul of abuse reporting policies, but "the Diocese of Winona started long before that, back in 1987, with strict policies on background checks and training on abuse." He added that abuse prevention and reporting are "the highest priority for us."
As to the release of names of credibly accused abusers, Hennessy pointed out that for deceased priests and others, releasing the list may be tantamount to a conviction without a trial. "Many of the people [on the list] have no way of defending themselves and were never found guilty in court," Hennessy stated. "Justice. We seek that to be served for all victims, but we also know that justice has to be viewed from both ways," he continued.
Anderson noted that some sexual abuse cases were never able to go to trial because they did not come to light before the criminal statute of limitations expired.
During a 2009 civil sexual abuse case involving the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona, another St. Paul judge ordered that the lists be provided to Anderson. However, the judge also issued a protective order prohibiting Anderson from making the lists public. "To be required by an officer of the court to hold onto these secrets has been acid in my heart," Anderson said.
The diocese and archdiocese petitioned the court in 2009 to issue the protective order prohibiting the publication of the lists, according to court documents provided by Anderson.
In granting the protective order, that judge wrote that publishing the lists could "destroy the reputations of individuals who may be innocent of any wrongdoing."
"We're certainly concerned with the victims, above all, and pray for them frequently," Hennessy said.