This morning's edition of the Winona Daily News (online version) notes that on the same day that personnel files of fourteen priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors were released to the public, the Diocese of Winona also issued a statement announcing that a math teacher at one of the diocese's Catholic high schools was terminated following her arrest for suspicion of criminal sexual conduct involving a minor child. Contrasting the handling of the recent accusation against the teacher with the newly illuminated historical practices of the diocese, the author of the article suggests that the diocese's response to the arrest  [along with its handling of the case of Rev. Leo Charles Koppala] suggests 'a dramatically changed approach to sexual misconduct by church employees'.

Eleven years after the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People/Essential Norms, one would hope that a drastically different approach would be evident. Yet, the release of documents yesterday raises questions about the motivation for that change. Documents related to the laicization of Leland Smith indicate that while (Father) Smith was initially removed from ministry in 1994 following credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors, he was later permitted to resume a limited form of priestly ministry until 2002, when the diocese began to receive emails from victims regarding abuse they had suffered at the hands of (Father) Smith. There is no indication that the accusations the diocese received in 2002 and 2005 were reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as was required following the promulgation of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutella in 2001. Rather, the diocese permitted Leland Smith to remain a priest, his status unclear to the general public, priests, and even his family. This situation continued even after the diocese received a complaint from another priest that (Father) Smith was attending funerals in clerical dress and serving as a lector.  

It was only in December of 2013, with the release of the names of credibly accused priests (including Smith) imminent that the Diocese of Winona altered its position on Leland Smith and forced him to request laicization. Had such a disclosure not been mandated by the civil courts, it appears extremely unlikely that Leland Smith would ever have been subjected to ecclesiastical penalties.

This situation calls to mind a recent letter sent by Archbishop John Nienstedt to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Reflecting on the 'terribly long and painful 12 months of self-evaluation and public scrutiny', the Archbishop asserts 'we are in a far different and, I would say, better place than we were in September of 2013'. I am unsure that the Archdiocese is in a better place, and I believe it is still far from where it needs to be (more about that in a later post). Yet, what troubles me most about this statement is the apparent lack of awareness that the 'silver lining' of which the Archbishop writes did not result from any spontaneous act of leadership or even simple adherence to the mandated procedures of the universal church. Rather, any improvement in its response to sexual misconduct by clergy has only been the result of outside pressure from either the media or the court system. In October of 2013, months after receiving my letter of resignation, the Archbishop was still denying there was a problem.

The Archbishop's letter encourages clergy to submit questions regarding the Archdiocese's protection, response, and healing programs in advance of an October 22 Clergy Study Day. Clearly, I have not been invited to submit
a question, nor will I be present to receive a response. So, I will have to simply hope and pray that someone who will be there will ask my question, which could be posed to the Bishop of Winona as well: 'Archbishop, why is this what it takes?'



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    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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