FERTILE, Minn. — Like any other Sunday, the Rev. Joseph Richards led Mass on Nov. 10 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fertile, a northwest Minnesota town in Polk County with almost 850 residents.
But this was the first Sunday Richards would address the congregation since it was revealed he was sexually abused as a child by his great-uncle. It was also disclosed that he sought help after having sexual fantasies about children and that he admitted to inappropriately touching a 5-year-old when he was 14.
“Those who know me and know my story are dumbfounded as to how this can be happening, as I was a minor . . . who was being sexually abused myself at the time,” Richards wrote in an email interview.
Jeff Anderson and Associates, a St. Paul law firm that represents sexual abuse victims in lawsuits against Catholic leaders and dioceses across the U.S., released on Nov. 5 documents and videos that were part of a $5 million settlement between 15 victims and the Diocese of Crookston. The diocese includes the cities of Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Bemidji.
One of those documents included a 1993 mental health evaluation report on Richards, who told a doctor he was sexually abused by his great-uncle, who was in his 80s at the time. The relative was never criminally charged and he died in 1982.
Richards also did not face charges in connection with the inappropriate touching incident as a 14-year-old. He has never faced any other allegations of sexual abuse.
Ordained in 1990, Richards told a former bishop in 1993 he once sexually abused another child, according to the diocese. He took a leave of absence for nine months of treatment and returned to his ministry duties.
He has been a priest at St. Joseph’s in Fertile since 2012.
Anderson has called on Crookston Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who is at the center of a Vatican-ordered probe regarding whether he prevented authorities from investigating sexual misconduct in his diocese, to remove Richards as a priest and as the bishop’s judicial vicar — an advisor to Hoeppner.
“I am alarmed and we are disturbed that this priest remains in ministry in the Diocese of Crookston on the choice of this bishop,” Anderson said during a Nov. 5 news conference, referring to Richards as a “peril of a real risk in real time.”
Richards' family and parishioners have defended him, calling him a Godly man who is well-liked and respected.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone personally who doesn’t support Father Joe,” said Kirsten Fuglseth, a religion education coordinator at St. Joseph’s. “After news of the press conference broke, Father Joe addressed a packed church at St. Joseph’s, and he did what he always does — he pointed us back to God by encouraging us to continue to pray, live out our faith and hold our heads high as Catholic faithful.”
In emails to The Forum, Bishop Hoeppner said there are no plans to remove Richards as a priest or as judicial vicar, as he is not a risk to children.
“He is a great priest who brings Jesus Christ to people in Word and Sacrament,” Hoeppner wrote. “People want him as their priest.”
Richards said he feels he has been revictimized by Anderson. He said his past is a scar that “does not control my life.”
“What happened when I was a 14-year-old, being abused by a relative, and inappropriately touching another minor is terrible, but it does not render me a pedophile or abuser of children,” he said.
'I would fight the thoughts'
Anderson told The Forum that Richards' case is significant not because he admitted to sexually abusing a child when he was 14 but rather the information he shared with a former bishop and in therapy sessions: that he had fantasies about sexually abusing children.
Anderson said his law firm released the information so people can decide whether Richards poses a risk.
Richards name was added to the diocese’s list of “individuals who have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor,” meaning investigations into him could not sustain the claims, diocese spokeswoman Janelle Gergen said.
But Richards is not on the Crookston Diocese's list of credibly accused priests, she said.
Richards said he was 12 years old when his great-uncle moved into his home. The relative sexually abused him for five years, he said.
"When I was 14 years old, and being abused myself, on one occasion I inappropriately touched another minor that I was babysitting,” he said. “After that incident, I vowed that I would never do that again.”
He said he doesn’t consider the incident with the 5-year-old to be sexual assault. When asked if he considered it sexual abuse, he said, “I don't know. It was a touch, fully clothed.”
His mental health evaluation report said he experienced repressed memories and flashbacks. He began to have fantasies about abusing children, which is why he sought help, according to the report.
“I would fight the thoughts,” he said. “I knew that to be healthy I needed help, I couldn’t do it alone.”
The diocese reviewed Richards' case and decided he could continue his work as a priest, Hoeppner said.
“The work that I have done has helped to break the cycle of abuse,” Richards said. “The only way we will ever break that cycle is one person at a time.”
Fuglseth called Richards’ story one of redemption rather than “a sequel to the trauma he suffered as a child.”
Anderson said Hoeppner misrepresented Richards' situation by saying the priest is not a risk. Richards still poses a risk, Anderson said, and letting him return to his ministry without warning the public was reckless.
There is general acknowledgement the public has a right to know about people with a history of sexual abuse, said Terry McKiernan, founder of the Bishop Accountability website that tracks clergy members with histories of sexual abuse.
There is no guarantee a sexual abuser will reoffend, but it’s a strong possibility, McKiernan said. “You need to know if the person you rely on is a danger to your children,” he said.
A number of priests have sexually abused children before joining the clergy, McKiernan said. He noted the late Rev. James Porter, who was accused of sexually abusing hundreds of children, including in Crookston. Records trace at least one crime against a child during a summer camp when Porter was a seminarian, McKiernan said.
McKiernan said he believes Richards’ history should be made public. The church “has to hold its priests to a zero-tolerance standard,” he said, adding that the Crookston Diocese should have screened Richards and found out about his history before he was ordained.
Seeking help without punishment
Dennis Cooley, director of the Northern Plains Ethics Institute at North Dakota State University, said people who realize that thoughts of abusing children are wrong and seek help, especially if they don’t act on them, should not be punished.
If they are, priests may be hesitant to go to counseling if they think confidential information may be made public, he said.
“They have to be able to trust their therapists and for them to work out how to deal with it,” Cooley said. “I’m very worried about that because it gives the signal to other people just to lie or not say anything, which I think is far more dangerous.”
McKiernan said a person who has abused children would not be allowed to join the ministry today. The church should not grandfather people into the system because previous procedures were inadequate, he said.
'Twisting a report'
Richards said in an interview he feels blessed by the overwhelming support he has received, despite the difficulty of the situation.
“I forgave my great uncle a long time ago, now I have to work on forgiving Jeffrey Anderson and those around him,” he said.
The mental health evaluation report Anderson released was meant to ascertain whether Richards needed help, Richards said. Anderson never talked to him but instead revictimized him by “twisting a report that was taken when I went for help,” Richards said.
“Jeffrey Anderson says he is fighting for the victims of sexual abuse,” Richards said. ���In effect, Mr. Anderson, in his condemnation of me because of some of the demons that I was fighting against, has condemned all victims of sexual abuse.”
Richards could have become a statistic but instead sought healing, Fuglseth said. She accused Anderson of taking “the low road” and opening “a very old wound in a very public and embarrassing way, for no reason other than a financial settlement and to destroy the Catholic Church.”
“Why wouldn’t they feature this as a story of how the church got it right in their handling of childhood sexual abuse?” she asked.
The church is heavily woven into parishioners’ lives, McKiernan said. Priests participate not only in Mass but often are involved in other aspects of life. They become trusted figures, so it’s hard to comprehend when that trusted person is revealed as a child abuser, he said.
McKiernan said Christians should remember their religion is one of the victim.
"It’s a celebration, in a way, of Jesus being willing to become a victim on our behalf," he said. "Because of that, every Catholic’s first priority, every Christian’s first priority, ought to be the victims in these situations, not the perpetrators."
Sexual abuse by anyone needs to be taken seriously, Richards said, but he noted most priests are good people.
“Don’t judge the whole because of the actions of a few,” he said.