One of the less reported on aspects of the many appearances by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in US Bankruptcy Court is the Archdiocese's requests to keep information under seal (meaning filed with the Court but protected from becoming part of the public record). This week, one such request related to information regarding settlements paid to victims of sexual abuse by clergy. The Archdiocese sought 'wide discretion' in withholding information about settlements, including financial details, but that motion was challenged by the Star Tribune, which argued that 'a policy of openness promotes actual fairness and the appearance of fairness, and enables the press to perform its watchdog function'. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kessel seemed to agree, ruling that the Archdiocese's request was 'too vague'. All parties were in agreement that the names and identifying information of victims would remain confidential.

Of course, this is not the first time that the Archdiocese has sought to protect its information from disclosure, especially information that could be perceived as detrimental to the Archdiocese or its leadership. I am sure that you recall the (unsuccessful) motions filed in court last year to try and block the releases of the names of accused clergy and also the deposition of Archbishop Nienstedt. These arguments generally repeated the Archdiocesan mantra that such actions would cause 'irreparable harm to the Archdiocese and its clergy'. For instance, the Archdiocese challenged an earlier court decision requiring it to disclose the names of all clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors after 2004, arguing that it was obligated to 'vigorously defend the rights of clergy members who have been the subject of false, frivolous or malicious claims against them'. We now know that this attempt included files such as that of Father William Stolzman.

It may have been this connection between the Archdiocese's expensive and exhaustive attempts to protect 'its' information (based on arguments that to do otherwise violated 'the Archdiocese's constitutional due process, equal protection and free exercise rights of the United States Constitution'), and Father Stolzman that called to my mind the contrast between the Archdiocese's aggressive legal protection of clergy and settlement records and its laissez faire attitude towards the records of the lay faithful, and in particular the sacramental records of Catholics in this Archdiocese.

To his credit, Father Stolzman was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding this, even prior to my time as Chancellor (2007). If I remember correctly, this came about when a parishioner from his parish in Shakopee, who happened to work at one of the local historical societies, casually mentioned that the Society had a copy of the microfilmed records of the parish. From approximately 1993-1995 the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis had systematically microfilmed the sacramental records of all parishes and institutions, informing reluctant pastors and parish staff that doing so was necessary in order to preserve the records. Necessary, yes, but expensive as well, and so to offset the cost (large for a small budget department like Records Management but not nearly large enough to be listed in any of the recent filings) the Archdiocese sold copies of the microfilms to historical societies, genealogists, ethnic and heritage preservation groups, and basically anyone with the wherewithal to ask and the money to pay for them. 

Learning of this Father Stolzman was, rightly, horrified. While it might make sense, or at least be permissible, to make such records available for those who are long deceased, the records that were sold were complete up until the date of the microfilming (1993, 1994, 1995). In other words, my records were sold, as were yours (providing that you received the sacraments of initiation or marriage/holy orders in this Archdiocese). For many of us, those records are simply a reflection of otherwise public events, and not particularly confidential. However, for those who gave children up for adoption, who had unacknowledged paternity, contracted secret marriages or even more secret divorces, were dispensed from vows, or were involved in a host of other situations, the promise of confidentiality around these records was a sacred obligation, not to mention at times a legal one (e.g. closed adoptions). 

When Father Stolzman sounded the alarm, the wholesale distribution of these records stopped. This made little difference, of course, since the films were already out there. Once I became Chancellor we were a bit more aggressive, seeking legal opinions regarding our options for reclaiming the films and sending threatening letters when all else failed. In most cases we were successful in removing the records from online search engines, but many historical societies and individuals retain the microfilms in their collections, and they are frequently searched. 

The contrast between the perceived obligations of the Archdiocese to protect its own interests as opposed to protecting ours is worth noting in this instance as in so many others. The selling of sacramental records is also another example of serious mismanagement and the adoption of policies and practices contrary to the teachings and expectations of the universal church. Most importantly, however, this situation demonstrates to what extent the Archdiocese is willing to posit legal arguments that flatly contradict its actual practices. The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is quick to accuse the civil courts of forcing it to violate the Code of Canon Law, but is more than willing to set aside those same provisions whenever it suits it to do so. And that, frankly, is hypocrisy.

It is possible, if not likely, that if the bankruptcy mediation fails more records of the lay faithful will be exposed. At issue will likely be the way in which confidential information, and especially financial and demographic information, is shared between what the Archdiocese is so-far categorizing as 'separate' organizations, especially when permission to do so has not been sought or received. In the meantime, I advise you all to look carefully, and question appropriately, the ways in which your parish or institution (including Catholic schools) is protecting or failing to protect your information. 


David Gallagher
01/31/2015 5:24pm

When does our apostolic nuncio / pope - say enough is enough in st paul? At bare minimum we need christian leadership - sorely lacking.. We need leadership aligned with Christ. Confirmation class today was "bad touching" - when do Nienstedt, McDonough, Flynn et al attend same? Problem never has been lack of reporting...

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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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