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Archbishop promises changes after latest sex abuse report

ST. PAUL — The Minneapolis-St. Paul Catholic archbishop promises “major changes” in how his diocese deals with priests accused of sex abuse.

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Archbishop John Nienstedt’s comments Monday came after revelation that a Minnesota priest working on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation in the 1970s sexually abused boys. The church did not tell law enforcement authorities about the incidents and paid the priest extra when he agreed to retire early in 2003.

Nienstedt also said the diocese will release names of priests involved in sex abuse cases.

“We have now determined that a full review and analysis of the effectiveness of the (priest sex abuse) monitoring program is warranted and we will make major changes to the approach we have been taking with the program since its inception in 2005,” the archbishop said in a written statement. “We will obtain the recommendations of outside experts so that our program reflects best practices.”

Nienstedt was not clear if the diocese will release more priests’ names than already have been made public in media investigations into the issue and lawsuits.

Attorney Mike Finnegan, who has filed lawsuits alleging priest abuses, said Nienstedt’s promises come late and the archbishop says “he will release the names of some of these priests, not all of them, and only with specific conditions.”

Nienstedt said he will only release priests’ names if they live in his archdiocese. He also said that he will release names only with permission of “the relevant court,” which Finnegan said is not necessary.

“Archbishop Nienstedt should start protecting children today and release the 33 names the archdiocese has known about since at least 2004,” Finnegan said. “For decades, this archdiocese has displayed a pattern and practice of protecting the sexual offender instead of putting the safety of the community and children first.”

The archbishop’s comment came in response to a Minnesota Public Radio report that Clarence Vavra sexually abused young boys while on a 1975-76 assignment on Rosebud reservation.

Vavra was ordained in 1965 and was removed from the ministry in 2003, with church leaders ordering him not to be involved in any clergy functions and to avoid all unsupervised contact with children.

Nienstedt said that in 1995, Vavra, now in his mid-70s, told church officials about the Rosebud incidents, but he was not removed from the ministry then.

“He was allowed to go back into active ministry under the supervision of other priests until 2003,” the archbishop said. “Vavra also engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with other adult males during his tenure as an active priest.”

Nienstedt added: “Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him. In the spirit of offering him a path to healing and redemption, too much trust was placed in the hope of remedying Vavra’s egregious behaviors.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.