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Audit finds Twin Cities archdiocese 'substantially compliant' with clergy abuse settlement terms

ST. PAUL — Former Hennepin County Attorney Thomas Johnson stood inside the Ramsey County District Courthouse on Friday morning and rattled off his email address and cellphone number to a handful of reporters gathered nearby.

Then he made the unusual request of asking the media to share his personal contact information with the public.

That's the only way Johnson can do what the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney's Office have collectively asked him to do: Serve as an independent and ongoing point-of-contact for victims of clergy sexual abuse seeking help and a confidential ear.

The new ombudsman role is voluntary and self-led, meaning Johnson won't be answering to anyone or picking up a paycheck.

Standing alongside Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Johnson said he wants to help those affected by the decades of clergy abuse within the archdiocese and help ensure the climate changes.

Johnson spoke on the same day the archdiocese released to the courts the results of the first of three court-ordered independent audits aimed at assessing the archdiocese's compliance with the settlement agreement reached with the Ramsey County Attorney's Office in 2015 over its handling of sexual abuse claims.

"I know victims of clergy abuse and I know how much pain and suffering they went through from something that should have never happened in the first place," Johnson said. "I think things have (improved) greatly in the archdiocese, but that doesn't mean things are perfect, and if I can be of help I would very much like to be."

Audit: Archdiocese 'substantially' compliant

Johnson's appointment was one of the reasons Choi and Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner praised the archdiocese Friday for its commitment to making its churches and parishes safer for children.

Their comments came during and after a hearing where findings of the first audit were shared with the court.

The audit determined the archdiocese is "substantially" complying with terms of its settlement agreement.

Among the terms: Requirements that the archdiocese adopt new protocols for reporting and responding to allegations of clergy abuse, regularly visit all of its parishes and schools, revise and review archdiocese policies, require background checks and child safety training for all staff and publish statements in the Catholic Spirit — the archdiocese newsletter — urging victims of sexual abuse to report conduct to police.

Stonebridge Business Partners conducted the audit and was granted "unrestricted" access to the archdiocese's documents, meeting minutes, staff and sites to complete it, according to Timothy O'Malley, the archdiocese's director of ministerial standards.

To conduct their work, auditors interviewed nearly 30 personnel who work, volunteer, attend church or are otherwise connected to the archdiocese and visited more than 20 parishes and schools.

County attorney, judge commend efforts

The settlement agreement was announced about six months after the Ramsey County Attorney's Office filed six gross misdemeanor charges against the archdiocese in June of 2015 for failing to adequately protect three children sexually abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.

The charges were dropped after the settlement agreement was reached between the parties and the archdiocese publicly admitted to failing the three minors in the case.

"I was impressed by the thoroughness and the detail ... and the openness and transparency with this first audit," Warner said during the hearing. "I think the bar has been set pretty high."

"This is an example of not forgetting why we are here," Warner added. "Those (victims') voices are still being heard ... and efforts are being made so that this doesn't happen again."

Choi echoed those remarks after the hearing, which also was attended by Hebda and attorneys for both the archdiocese and the county attorney's office. Hebda was appointed to replace outgoing Archbishop John Nienstedt.

"The archdiocese has gone beyond the letter of the settlement agreement and really ... embraced the spirit of it," Choi said. He added that archdiocese personnel have done "significant work" to ensure transparency and accountability.

He pointed out that the appointment of Johnson to the ombudsman role comes nearly two years earlier than required under the terms of the settlement agreement.

Archbishop: Still work to do

Hebda called the findings "a bright spot" for the archdiocese as it continues to try to repair its relationship with the community and build a safer environment for children.

While acknowledging the work that's been done, Hebda said the church still needs to do more.

"We realize ... we have to work everyday to protect children," he said.

One area that still needs some improvement is parish and school personnel compliance with new requirements that mandate every person who works or volunteers for the sites complete "virtue training," sign a code of conduct and get a background check every three years.

The schools and parishes were 92 percent compliant on that front, while the rest of the archdiocese's staff, including all of its clergy, were 100 percent compliant.

"The archdiocese isn't happy with 92 percent ... and is committed to doing better," Hebda said.

Warner also pushed the archdiocese to improve in that area.

The archdiocese is required to submit reports on its progress to the court every six months and conduct three independent audits of its efforts before the settlement agreement expires in 2020.

Its next audit will take place this summer.

The archdiocese's attempts to reach a settlement with victims/survivors of clergy abuse in federal bankruptcy court are ongoing.

How to reach ombudsman Thomas Johnson

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