Lawsuit over abuse in Twin Cities archdiocese seeks to hold Vatican at fault
Ben Hoffman was visibly emotional as he told a room full of reporters Tuesday, May 14, why he finally decided to go public about abuse he and his brothers endured by a St. Paul priest years ago.
With his brothers Stephen and Luke standing beside him, he said he hoped it will compel the Vatican to stop protecting priests accused of sexual misconduct and start telling the truth.
The three brothers, joined by two more abuse survivors, filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church in federal court in Minnesota on Tuesday.
The suit claims the church bears responsibility for the Hoffmans’ sexual abuse because their case was mishandled by former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S.
“I am still a Catholic,” Ben Hoffman said. “I have a deep love for my faith, (and) it means the world to me. … We have to fix this. We need to become more transparent. … We need to be more willing to stand in the truth.”
Ben Hoffman said he also decided to go public about his experience with former priest Curtis Wehmeyer in honor of his family, including his brothers and his wife.
Jim Keenan, also from the Twin Cities, and Manual Vega of California are the other plaintiffs.
‘They are not above us’
Keenan was abused by former priest Thomas Adamson while Adamson was at St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul Park in 1967. Adamson acknowledged in a 2014 deposition that he had sexually abused 10 boys.
“If (Adamson) worked in any other industry … I would have never met him. He would be in jail,” Keenan said. “Isn’t that strange that because they wear a collar they get to play by different rules? I come forward to sue the Pope and the Vatican because it needs to stop. They are not above us. In fact, they should be setting the bar.”
The men spoke at attorney Jeff Anderson’s law offices in downtown St. Paul after Anderson and colleague Mike Finnegan detailed the aims of the suit as well as the path that preceded it.
Besides seeking monetary damages, the lawsuit asks that the Vatican turn over names of “credibly accused” priests whose cases had been referred to Rome, along with records related to those cases. It also asks for names of church officials involved in covering up misconduct.
It’s the fourth time Anderson has been involved in a lawsuit against the Vatican, but he said Tuesday this one has the sharpest teeth.
The suit attempts to trace a line from clergy sex abuse victims to the Vatican through Minnesota church officials. Luke, Stephen and Ben Hoffman were abused by Wehmeyer roughly between 2009 and 2012.
Nienstedt and the former ambassador, Carlo Maria Viganò, previously denied the allegations raised against them in the new lawsuit.
The Vatican’s U.S. lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, had no immediate comment. In the past Lena described sex abuse lawsuits naming the Vatican as a defendant as publicity stunts.
In a statement that followed Anderson’s news conference with the Hoffman brothers, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who succeeded Nienstedt as the head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, reiterated the failures of local church officials in the handling of the Wehmeyer case.
“I am profoundly sorry for their suffering, and I am very grateful to the Hoffmans for sharing their stories with others and, in one instance, with me,” Hebda said in the statement. “I thank them for their courage. I thank them for being staunch child protection advocates.”
He also noted that the archdiocese recently hired a victims/survivors outreach coordinator, “a survivor herself of abusive behavior on the part of a priest, to assist us in our outreach efforts.”
Because it has the status of a foreign nation, the Vatican is generally exempt from civil lawsuits filed in the United States. Exceptions to the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act include wrongful acts committed against U.S. citizens and commercial activities undertaken by foreign nations.
Two of Anderson’s past suits involved Keenan and Vega.
Lawsuit: Official cautioned Nienstedt on Wehmeyer
Before the Hoffman brothers were abused, church officials received complaints about Wehmeyer’s inappropriate sexual activities.
Wehmeyer was later evaluated at a treatment center for troubled priests and diagnosed with a sexual disorder. The archbishop at the time, Harry Flynn, moved him from West St. Paul to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and assigned him to administrative duties.
But in 2009, about the time Wehmeyer started abusing the Hoffman brothers, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor.
According to the lawsuit, another official of the archdiocese cautioned Nienstedt about the promotion and informed him of Wehmeyer’s record, to no avail.
Over the next three years, Wehmeyer abused the Hoffman brothers — in their mid-teens — during camping trips.
When their mother reported the abuse of at least two of her sons to authorities, Wehmeyer was arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.
Wehmeyer’s arrest led local prosecutors to file criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children. The charges were dropped in 2016 when the archdiocese admitted wrongdoing and agreed to meet with victims and adopt stronger measures to prevent clergy abuse.
Wehmeyer arrest triggered Nienstedt's resignation
Wehmeyer’s arrest also triggered the forced resignation of Nienstedt after the archdiocese retained a law firm to look into his supervision of Wehmeyer. The investigation revealed allegations that Nienstedt also had sexually harassed other priests and seminarians and had a “social relationship” with Wehmeyer.
Controversy surrounding the relationship between Wehmeyer and Nienstedt escalated when a priest involved in the investigation wrote a memo saying that Viganò ordered church officials to end the inquiry and instructed them to destroy a letter they wrote to him objecting to his directive.
Although the lawsuit states Viganò’s alleged actions as fact, the former Vatican ambassador flatly denied them in a statement last year.
“I never told anyone that (the law firm) should stop the inquiry, and I never ordered any document be destroyed,” he said. “Any statement to the contrary is false.”