Abusive priest hid in plain sight for years, retired quietly to New Prague

Minnesota Public Radio/November 11, 2013

By Madeleine Baran, Tom Scheck and Sasha Aslanian

One night on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota nearly four decades ago, a 36-year-old Roman Catholic priest asked a young boy to share his bed.

The boy was about 9 or 10 years old. As he climbed into bed, he asked the priest a question: Are you going to molest me, like my relative does when he asks me to spend the night?

The answer was yes.

What happened that night remained secret. The priest, the Rev. Clarence Vavra, stayed in ministry and served in 16 parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis before retiring in 2003. He's never been publicly identified as an abuser. There are no records of any police reports or lawsuits. No victims have come forward. Vavra admitted in a May 1995 psychological evaluation that he had attempted to anally rape the South Dakota boy. The report was stored in the vicar general's filing cabinet at the chancery.

Today Vavra lives in a small, gray home in New Prague, Minn., less than a block from a school. He wouldn't answer questions when approached by a reporter.

New Prague Area Schools Superintendent Tim Dittberner said no one notified the school about Vavra's history of abuse. If the priest had been a convicted sex offender, he said, there would've been a community meeting before authorities decided whether to allow the offender to live so close to a school.

The archdiocese's handling of Vavra reveals decades of deception by leaders who promised "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse. An MPR News investigation has found that three archbishops — John Roach, Harry Flynn and John Nienstedt — failed to report Vavra to authorities or warn the public. Roach transferred Vavra 11 times in 20 years. Flynn overlooked Vavra's alleged sexual interest in a murderer and in a convicted child rapist, and gave the priest payments above his pension in exchange for agreeing to retire early. Nienstedt stopped the payments, but Vavra continues to live a quiet life in a neighborhood full of children.

Nienstedt told MPR News Saturday that Vavra admitted in 1995 to sexually abusing several young boys and a teenager on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Vavra also admitted to "inappropriate sexual contact with other adult males," Nienstedt said, and received inpatient psychological treatment in 1996.

"Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him," Nienstedt said. "In the spirit of offering him a path to healing and redemption, too much trust was placed in the hope of remedying Vavra's egregious behaviors. Not enough effort was made to identify and care for his victims."

Flynn did not respond to an interview request. Roach died in 2003.

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