ST. PAUL — When asked during a recent panel discussion to explain how the sexual abuse Ben Hoffman endured by former St. Paul priest Curtis Wehmeyer impacted his life, the 26-year-old didn’t hold back.
He described how he spent years feeling somehow responsible for the abuse he and his two brothers endured as children by Wehmeyer, and how he eventually turned to drugs, alcohol and work to “fill the void” left in him.
He also found himself hating the church and the Catholic faith.
But today Hoffman is a married father to a 2-year-old boy and has reclaimed his faith. In fact, he recently left a corporate job at Best Buy to devote more time to ministry work.
Hoffman was among those attending a court hearing in the Ramsey County District Courthouse Tuesday, Jan. 28, alongside his brothers and mother.
At the hearing Ramsey County dismissed its child protection case against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
It brings to an end four years of court monitoring brought about after Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese for its failure in handing the clergy sex-abuse crisis.
Settlement demanded sweeping changes
Wehmeyer and his abuse of the Hoffman brothers was at the center of the charges. The case took more than 20 months, 17,000 documents and interviews with more than 50 archdiocese stakeholders to investigate.
At the time, authorities said the Wehmeyer case was indicative of a larger and historic pattern within the archdiocese that valued protecting priests at the expense of children.
Per the terms of the settlement agreement, Choi wound up dropping the charges against the archdiocese in exchange for a public apology from Archbishop Bernard Hebda for its mistakes. Hebda was appointed to the post after Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned in the midst of the scandal.
The archdiocese also was forced to implement a system of checks and balances, including enforced training requirements for all clergy, staff and volunteers on how to spot and report sexual abuse, as well as the creation of a new ministerial review board comprised mostly of laity — including Patty Wetterling.
It’s a seismic shift from the days when only clergy reviewed such cases, often sweeping them under the rug as accused priests were quietly shuffled to other parishes.
The archdiocese also hired staff with backgrounds in law enforcement for notable leadership roles, including Tim O’Malley, a former director of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who now heads up the archdiocese’s Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Office.
It’s also made a commitment to helping survivors heal by appointing an ombudsman unaffiliated with the archdiocese to field their concerns and hired a victim outreach coordinator. It’s held regular restorative justice sessions for survivors.
Hebda vows to continue efforts
Ramsey County District Judge Teresa Warner has ensured compliance of the settlement agreement by reviewing eight progress reports submitted to the court and three external audits.
Tuesday marked the day the archdiocese will continue the work on its own, without the court making sure it's doing the right thing.
Hebda vowed to continue the work in his remarks at a press conference after the hearing.
He noted a report that the archdiocese submitted to the court Tuesday that outlines its plan to continue its commitment to safe environments for children in perpetuity. Among other elements, it includes continuing to bring in outside entities to conduct external audits.
Judge, Choi commend progress
Both Choi and Judge Warner lauded the archdiocese’s efforts, saying they exceeded both the expectations of the law and the spirit of the agreement.
“Can we say no child will ever be abused again, no,” Warner said during the hearing. “What we can say … is the safeguards are in place in his archdiocese so that the protection of children is paramount before any protection of any clergy.”
Choi echoed those remarks after the hearing, giving credit to the leadership of Hebda, O’Malley and deputy director of the archdiocese’s Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Office, Janell Rasmussen.
So long as those three remain involved, Choi said he has “great confidence” the archdiocese’s will continue its commitment to the work.
He added what others have said, that the true test of the depth of the institutional change will come about five years from now, when new leaders take over.
‘Everyone said children are safer’
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office conducted its own in-depth review prior to Tuesday’s hearing, consisting of interviews with dozens of archdiocesan stakeholders to assess how far the the archdiocese has come.
“Everyone said children are safer … the change has embedded,” Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ring said of the findings. They were compiled in a report filed to the court Tuesday.
Work, concerns remain
Still, everyone who spoke during and after the hearing said plenty of work remains.
The county attorney’s report outlined weak spots within the archdiocese, including some outdated training materials, a lingering sense among survivors that the archdiocese needs to do more to reach out to them, and a concern among some that priests should be better trained in how to respond to trauma.
On Tuesday, O’Malley said the archdiocese is continuing to investigate individual clergy members' responsibility. But he said to date the focus has been on priests accused of abuse.
Others say they would like to see more leadership from the archdiocese in reminding those who wish to “move on” from the crisis.
A woman who recently attended a restorative justice event held by the county attorney’s office and the archdiocese spoke to the concern.
“I feel like there needs to be a bigger voice then mine saying that this isn’t ever going to be over for people, that this will never be done,” she said.