CHICAGO — Prosecutors in Minnesota filed criminal charges Friday against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accusing church leaders of mishandling repeated complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest and failing to follow through on pledges to protect children and root out pedophile clergymen.
The charges and accompanying civil petition, announced by the Ramsey County prosecutor, John J. Choi, stem from accusations by three male victims who say that from 2008 to 2010, when they were underage, a local priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, gave them alcohol and drugs before sexually assaulting them.
The criminal case amounts to a sweeping condemnation of the archdiocese and how its leaders have handled the abuse allegations — even after reforms were put in place by church leaders to increase accountability — and the charges are among the most severe actions taken by US authorities against a Catholic diocese.
“Today, we are alleging a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over the course of decades,” Choi said in a statement.
Wehmeyer, 50, who was dismissed as a priest in March, was sentenced to five years in a Minnesota prison in 2013 for criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography. He also has been charged with sex crimes in Wisconsin.
The six criminal charges filed Friday, misdemeanors with a maximum fine of $3,000 each, accused the archdiocese of failing to protect children. Choi also filed a civil petition against the archdiocese that he said was intended to provide legal remedies to prevent similar inaction from happening again.
The 44-page criminal complaint states that concerns about Wehmeyer date to the 1990s, when he was in seminary and supervisors suggested his past sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse made him a poor candidate for the priesthood.
Fellow clergy members and parishioners voiced repeated concerns about Wehmeyer after his ordination in 2001, prosecutors said. The archdiocese allowed Wehmeyer to continue as a priest, and even placed him in charge of his own parish, despite learning about his attempts to pick up young men at bookstores and his encounters with law enforcement at known “cruising” spots.
The charging documents also say that archdiocese officials knew that Wehmeyer used a boys’ bathroom at a parish elementary school instead of the staff restroom; tried to give an elementary school-age boy a tour of the rectory in violation of policy; and took camping trips with boys where some of the sexual abuse was said to have occurred.
The archdiocese placed Wehmeyer in a monitoring program for priests facing complaints of abuse or other problems, but prosecutors said in court documents that the supervision and follow-through was “lax or nonexistent.”
‘‘It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well,’’ Choi said, according to the Associated Press. He said church leaders had the power to remove Wehmeyer from ministry, but ‘‘time and time again turned a blind eye in the name of protecting priests at the expense of protecting children.’’
Civil cases against the archdiocese and priests have poured in since 2013, when the Minnesota Legislature passed the Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for filing lawsuits involving claims of sexual abuse that were beyond the criminal statute of limitations.
An auxiliary bishop for the diocese, Andrew Cozzens, said in a statement Friday, “We deeply regret the abuse that was suffered by the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer and are grieved for all victims of sexual abuse.”
Criminal charges against a diocese are rare. In 2011, a grand jury indicted Bishop Robert Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri on a misdemeanor of failing to report suspected child abuse. Finn was convicted in 2012, and he resigned in April; charges against the diocese were dropped.Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.