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Sex abuse scandals haunt American Catholics

Thirty years ago, American church officials were warned of the coming consequences of the sexual molestation of children by priests and clerics. Over the decades, revelations of abuse and subsequent cover-ups have erupted across the country. As Pope Francis arrives in the U.S., special correspondent Chris Bury offers an update on the attempts to reform, as well as the pain many still endure.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's not yet clear what issues Pope Francis will directly address during his visit here, but one problem casts a long shadow for the church: sexual abuse scandals.

    This pope has pressured top church officials to end abuse involving priests. Just this year, the bishops of Saint Paul-Minneapolis and Kansas city have resigned in the wake of new revelations.

    As part of our special coverage of the pope's visit this week, special correspondent Chris Bury reports on how sex abuse by clergy still haunts American Catholics.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    For the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, with more than 800,000 Catholics, the sex abuse scandal still resonates in a raw and immediate way.

    JENNIFER HASELBERGER, Former Canon Lawyer, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: I think, by anyone's definition of a crisis, we're in it. And there doesn't seem to be any way out.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    For nearly five years, Jennifer Haselberger served as the cannon lawyer, an expert in church law, for the archdiocese, but, in 2013, she resigned in protest after, she says, top church officials ignored her cautions about a priest's behavior.

    Haselberger then tipped off authorities and reporters to a sex abuse scandal.

  • JENNIFER HASELBERGER:

    I was personally devastated when I learned of the abuse that had taken place on my watch. And if I had been able to do anything about that, then I would have done everything I could, but there's so much opposition to doing anything that would keep people safe, that I couldn't be part of it any longer.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    In June, her former boss, Archbishop John Nienstedt, and another bishop abruptly resigned, less than two weeks after the Ramsey County prosecutor dropped this bombshell.

  • JOHN CHOI, Ramsey County Attorney:

    And what justice requires is that we file criminal charges against the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for its role in failing to protect children.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    What startled many Catholics here is that the abuse took place not decades ago, but within the last five years.

    Former Priest Curtis Wehmeyer plead guilty to molesting three boys between 2010 and 2012, two of them in this camping trailer in the parking lot of his church. He's now serving a five-year sentence in this Minnesota prison and faces more prison time in Wisconsin for abuses there. Wehmeyer had been promoted to pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Saint Paul, despite warnings about him at the time.

  • JENNIFER HASELBERGER:

    He had been caught cruising in places where people go for anonymous sex. He had propositioned some very young men. And all of this was clearly documented.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    Did this archdiocese willfully ignore signs of a pedophile priest?

    BISHOP ANDREW COZZENS, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis: I don't think that any person willfully ignored — willfully ignored signs of a pedophile priest, even if we can say that perhaps mistakes were made.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    Bishop Andrew Cozzens is among the officials newly appointed to cope with the crisis and carry out reforms. A former top state law enforcement official, Tim O'Malley, was hired to oversee compliance.

    TIM O'MALLEY, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis: It's not enough to do what's right. You have got to follow through on that. That didn't happen as well as it should have.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    But now they say a review board of 10 laypeople and two priests will evaluate every allegation of improper behavior and hand any cases involving children to law enforcement.

    So you turned this over to police right away?

  • TIM O’MALLEY:

    Absolutely, yes, I mean — and I mean, right away, that day.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    That didn't happen in the case of Jim Keenan. He filed a lawsuit against a former Minnesota priest who admitted abusing him when he was 13.

    JIM KEENAN, Victim of Priest Abuse: Had the truth church followed the societal rules of turning criminals over to the police, I would have never met him, nor would most of his victims.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    Keenan was an altar boy when parish Priest Thomas Adamson, a good friend of his family's, molested him over a year's time.

  • JIM KEENAN:

    He was a professional pedophile. He knew how to groom the young people that he wanted to molest, and he was good at it.

  • MAN:

    And did you abuse those kids?

  • THOMAS ADAMSON, Former Catholic Priest:

    Yes.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    Adamson was removed from the priesthood and this church, but wasn't punished for what he did to Jim Keenan.

  • JIM KEENAN:

    We went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and we lost on a technicality of statute of limitations.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    In a videotaped deposition for other civil case, Adamson admitted sexual acts with at least 10 boys.

  • MAN:

    Mr. Adamson, have you ever spent a day in jail?

  • THOMAS ADAMSON:

    No.

  • MAN:

    Don't you think you should have?

  • THOMAS ADAMSON:

    No.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    What was your reaction?

  • JIM KEENAN:

    I almost threw my one-liter bottle of soda through the TV set. To hear and look at his face, and there was a smugness to it: No, I shouldn't have gone to prison. It's not criminal. It's a sin.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    The first alarm bells for American church officials sounded 30 years ago just 80 miles from the Twin Cities at Saint John's Abbey, one of the country's oldest Catholic institutions.

    In June 1985, bishops from all over the country gathered here at Saint John's Abbey. They were given a 92-page report warning of trouble ahead. It cautioned that sexual molestation of children by priests and clerics could — quote — "pose extremely serious financial consequences and significant injury to the church."

    That report turned out to be uncannily prophetic. Seventeen years later, the scandal exploded after The Boston Globe exposed the cover-up of sexual abuse by parish priests.

  • ACTOR:

    When you have poor kids from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it's a big deal. How do you say no to God?

  • CHRIS BURY:

    The story is depicted in the new movie "Spotlight" starring Michael Keaton.

  • ACTOR:

    This is not just Boston. This is the whole country. It's the whole world.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    As similar cases erupted across the country, the consequences have been enormous, just as the bishops were warned.

    The Saint Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, facing more than 400 claims alleging sexual abuse of minors and adults, is now selling off millions of dollars worth of property after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year. In all, 12 American dioceses and two religious orders have sought bankruptcy protection since the scandal first broke in 2002.

    For Pope Francis, the lingering impact of those cases and others worldwide has led him to establish a new tribunal for any bishop accused of failing to protect children.

  • POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter):

    This is my anguish and pain, the fact that some priests and bishops violated the innocence of minors.

  • MAN:

    Almighty God, have mercy on us. Forgive us all of our sins and bring us to life everlasting.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    And in the pope's first major American appointment, he chose Bishop Blase Cupich to head the huge Chicago Archdiocese. Cupich is an outspoken critic of church leaders, who he says have failed to put children first.

    In Chicago, Cupich says, the archdiocese has set the gold standard for preventing sex abuse after enduring painful scandals of its own. Now safeguards include background checks and fingerprinting for all employees and sex abuse training for priests, clerics, volunteers, teachers, students, and children.

    ARCHBISHOP BLASE CUPICH, Archdiocese of Chicago: We make sure that people who work for us who are working with children are never with a child alone, that they always have more than one adult, that there are certain good touches and bad touches that are taught, so that they recognize how a child might feel uncomfortable, that they also are alerted to any improper activity that would be immediately reported.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    In downtown Chicago, the diocese has built a public garden in the name of healing for victims of sex abuse by clergy. At the entrance, a profound apology is inscribed on this plaque.

    Now even a survivor of childhood sex abuse tells us he's comfortable putting his children in Catholic schools here. As a teenager, Michael Hoffman was molested by his parish priest, who was eventually sent to prison.

    MICHAEL HOFFMAN, Victim of Priest Abuse: I know the safe environment initiatives that my kids had to go through, and I know that each and every volunteer, myself included, we had to go through the Protecting God's Children class. I am sure of the protection of my children and all of the children in our parish.

  • CHRIS BURY:

    But in the Twin Cities, where the scars are so fresh, the canon lawyer who blew the whistle notes that the archdiocese is contesting the criminal case against it.

  • JENNIFER HASELBERGER:

    If that case goes the trial, it's going to be incredibly ugly. The Catholics and the non-Catholics of this archdiocese are going to have to hear things about their church that I don't know they're prepared to hear. And there aren't a lot of people that are going to come out of it with their reputations intact.

    Other critics contend that even with new reforms, the Vatican has yet to punish a single bishop for enabling the abuse of children. So 40 years after American bishops were first warned here in Minnesota of an impending scandal, Catholics are still coping with the bitter consequences. I'm Chris bury for PBS NewsHour in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Follow all our coverage of the pope's visit. Plus, our guest columnists' reflections on faith at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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