Ramsey County prosecutor: Priest abuse cases ‘just the beginning’

Ramsey County prosecutor: Priest abuse cases ‘just the beginning’

As part of its coverage of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and elsewhere, the Pioneer Press talked with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. The following reflects the interview, edited for space and clarity.

Q. What do you think your office will see in terms of future clergy sex abuse cases?

A. We’re aware of many cases that are coming to us from police. One may be imminent. From my perspective, this is just the beginning.

Q. Some have criticized your decision not to charge officials of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with failure to meet mandatory reporter requirements in the Curtis Wehmeyer case. (Wehmeyer, formerly a priest at Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, was sentenced last February to five years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys and possessing child pornography.) Can you give some context for that decision, and for your plans going forward?

A. That was the first case involving archdiocese officials that was presented to our office. But the overall investigation of sexual abuse in the archdiocese and how it’s been handled is going to take a really long time. In fact, if we’re talking about this issue a year from now, I won’t be surprised. It’s that big of a task to get through.

A police agency can’t just cut and paste what’s on the Internet or from a news publication and present that to us as evidence. They need to go out and independently seek that information from all these various sources and then try to make heads or tails of all of that — corroborate it, do what investigators do. We are involved with the police to advise them as they are doing their investigation.

The public has seen a lot of coverage of sexual abuse and the archdiocese in the media. I can totally understand the anger and the frustration and the shock of hearing about all of these horrible things that have been happening in the Catholic Church. I share all of that with the public. But I have to protect the process of how we get to certain decisions in the criminal justice system. It’s not about making a conclusion before we even gather evidence. I’m hoping we can give those investigators an opportunity to work and do what they need to do.

We’ve always said this: The facts will lead the way.

Q. After you declined to charge archdiocese officials, a document from Archbishop John Nienstedt surfaced that disclosed he was aware of the allegation against Wehmeyer on June 18, 2012 — at least two days before archdiocese officials reported it to police. The law requires an allegation be reported within 24 hours. Do you know whether police are doing further investigation? Is it possible charges are still forthcoming?

A. Based upon the information presented to our office at the time, we declined the case for insufficient evidence. That (Nienstedt) document was not in our investigative file. We’ve asked the police to review it. I have insisted they submit a supplemental report, and it will come here to my office.

Q. When do you expect that?

A. I don’t know. I would encourage anybody with information about the timing of the report to share that information with the police. In general, it’s not unusual for us to charge a case we previously declined — if we get further information.

Q. Why have you not convened a grand jury to investigate the priest abuse scandal?

A. It would be very inappropriate to convene an investigative grand jury when there’s an active police investigation right now. Convening a grand jury would undermine that process. On an issue like this, I really believe what this community needs and deserves is transparency and accountability. Our law in Minnesota is very clear: If the grand jury declines to charge, then everything that happened in the process is secret. The public won’t know who testified, who refused to testify, what information came out. And I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with that in this particular situation. In other states, when an investigative grand jury issues a “no bill” (no charges), they can do a grand jury report. That is not allowed in Minnesota.

Q. Why hasn’t your office filed search warrants for archdiocese offices?

A. We don’t have the power to file search warrants. That’s a police tool. I have no doubt that police will use those when appropriate.

Q. We hear a lot about civil lawsuits involving offenders and church officials. How are criminal prosecutions different?

A. There is a great difference in the burden of proof required. Attorneys for plaintiffs in civil cases have to make sure their case is not “frivolous.” That’s the standard for them. The standard we have to meet as criminal prosecutors is: We shouldn’t be proceeding in a case where we don’t believe that there’s sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It would be unethical to do that.

Civil cases are ultimately decided on the “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning a jury’s decision is based on whether the plaintiff’s claim is true “more likely than not.” A criminal case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and all 12 jurors must agree to that.

In my role as a chief prosecutor, I have to put a systematic framework around the process to make sure we do things based on what the law is, and not based on emotion or public sentiment.

Q. Does your Catholic background color your prosecutorial decisions in any way?

A. We’ve never hesitated to prosecute people in the church. Prime examples are Curtis Wehmeyer and Christopher Wenthe (convicted in 2011 of having an illegal sexual relationship with an adult parishioner). If people need to be held accountable, and are within the reach of the law, they should be. The suggestion that I would treat Catholic officials differently from others — I think that’s incredibly unfair. But I think I’ve developed very thick skin.

Q. Are you still active in the Catholic Church?

A. I am not a regular churchgoer.

Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522. Follow her at twitter.com/emilygurnon.