A church tribunal determining the sensitive issue of whether Catholics in the Twin Cities can annul their marriages has employed priests known to have engaged in sexual impropriety, according to church and other documents obtained by the Star Tribune.
The practice is defended by the church but contested by others who say the church finds jobs for problem priests at the expense of Catholics in crisis.
The Reverend James McConville, a Metropolitan Court judge since at least 2009, was sued for sexual harassment by a female staffer at St. Peter’s Church in North St. Paul in 2004 and placed under restrictions by the archdiocese.
Reverend Daniel Conlin was the chief justice when he fathered a child with a married church worker in 2004. He left the court later that year, but returned for a period of at least 2011 in 2013.
The Reverend Joseph Wajda joined the Metropolitan Court just months after settling one of two 1991 child sex abuse lawsuits involving boys in his churches. He was chief justice and administrator when he left in 2002.
Other priests accused of sexual impropriety have also sat in court in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the years, giving them access to sensitive information about everything from couples therapy reports to their sex lives. . Their judgments on marriages can determine a Catholic’s good standing with the church.
“It’s like putting guys who failed med school in the emergency room,” said the Reverend Tom Doyle, a former canon attorney at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and archdiocese court judge. from Chicago.
Doyle, a well-known victims’ advocate, said it was “an absolute violation of canon law” for such priests to sit in court, since judges are expected to have an “intact reputation”. But as the archdiocese faces a growing number of clergy offenders who are meant to be barred from public ministry, administrative jobs have become one of the few places they could serve, church officials acknowledge.
The archdiocese says its judges adhere to church standards.
“‘Reputation intact’ refers to the objectivity and impartiality of the judge in his judgment, that is, the judge is not for sale,” wrote the Reverend Timothy Cloutier, judicial vicar of the archdiocese, in an email.
Cloutier defended the practice of putting accused priests in court.
“It involves little, if any, interaction with lay worshipers, other than lay employees,” he said. “This can be seen as a good way for a priest to provide a meaningful contribution to the needs of the archdiocese when other ministry work is not an option.”
The practice is not unique to Minnesota, said Patrick Wall, a former priest who served on the court and now works with the law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates representing abuse victims. Priests accused of child abuse have sat in courts in Los Angeles, Boston and Tucson, Wall said.
About 500 annulment petitions were considered by the Metropolitan Court in 2012, according to the latest annual report from the Canon Law Society of America. Last year, judges ruled on 176 cases; 24% were refused – the third highest refusal rate in the country, the report said. Nationally, approximately 4% of applications are refused.
Why a cancellation?
The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce. An annulment is a declaration by the church that the marriage – as defined by the church – never existed. It frees ex-spouses to remarry and receive communion and other sacraments in order.
According to Canon Law Society reports, about 6,000 Catholics in the Twin Cities have filed for annulment of their marriages over the past decade. Others have explored the option.
The ex-husband of the woman who became pregnant with Conlin’s child is one of them. About two years ago, he scoured the archdiocese’s website to learn more about the cancellation process. He was amazed when he clicked on the court staff page and found Conlin’s photo and biography.
“Anyone with a conscience knows this is wrong,” said the man, who did not want his name used in this story. “Also, I feel bad for people asking for annulments, not knowing about his past wrongdoings. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone judging my marriage for breaking vows and destroying a marriage.
The archdiocese has also paid for some of these priests to receive degrees in canon law, said Jennifer Haselberger, a whistleblower who has spoken out about the archdiocese’s treatment of abusive priests. Wajda, for example, was sent to the Catholic University in Washington, DC, in 1992, less than a year after a child abuse case was settled, according to church records obtained by the Star Tribune.
Wajda then served as a court judge, then chief justice and administrator, from 1995 to 2002, according to parish records. He was permanently removed from office the following year and is on the Archdiocese’s list of credibly accused priests.
McConville graduated from Catholic University in 2006, the same year the archdiocese settled a lawsuit that accused him of sexual harassment at St. Peter’s. The lawsuit said McConville made repeated sexually offensive remarks and comments about masturbation and told dirty jokes about nuns and priests, according to court documents.
Reverend Joseph Gallatin, who was removed from his post in December at St. Peter’s Church in Mendota due to a ‘boundary violation’ with a sleeping teenager during a mission trip in 1998, was also due to attend the Catholic university, but the Archdiocese said it canceled the mission after a group of victims allegedly contacted the university. Cloutier said underwriting degrees in canon law allows the church “to call upon a cleric who would be able to validly serve the archdiocese in another capacity.”
Wajda, reached for comment at his Minneapolis home, said he thought he “did a good job” in court and denied any sexual misconduct with young people. McConville did not respond to requests for comment, but Cloutier called him “a priest in good standing with the church.” Conlin did not respond to requests for comment.
The whistleblower enters the scene
Haselberger served as a judge on the Metropolitan Court from 2004 to 2006. She said in a court affidavit that this was her first window into the archdiocese’s efforts “to cover up…potential criminal acts of sexual misconduct… and the harmful nature of this cover-up.
Haselberger wrote that she was distressed by then-Archbishop Harry Flynn’s decision to appoint Conlin to a post that “involved overseeing female staff, and… would bring Reverend Conlin into contact with more vulnerable women in marital distress”.
Archbishop John Nienstedt reappointed Conlin, she said.
“It puts the interest of the priest above the interest of the Catholic community,” Haselberger said in a recent interview. “Here you have two men who have offended their own employees… This tells you about their conduct in the office, their ability to manage people… their general fitness for the job.
Haselberger added that the annulments are not only requested by divorced Catholics looking for a new life. She remembers a longtime couple with a dying partner, who wanted to get in the eyes of the church before it was too late.
The petitioners share their sexual infidelities, physical abuse, substance abuse and other painful life stories, she said. “It’s a process that really exposes people to scrutiny, that demands that they be treated with dignity and respect.”
Over the years, judges and court staff have also included Reverend Dennis Kampa and Reverend Paul Palmitessa, both on the list of credibly accused priests released last year.
Doyle said such hiring practices reveal “another dimension to the sexual abuse saga.”
“It shows the institutional church’s lack of understanding of the horrific and complex nature of abuse,” he said.