St. Paul police fault archdiocese's handling of priest before arrest in abuse case

Authorities questioned the visit by the former vicar general and a deacon before arrest in abuse case

Star Tribune, Minnesota/November 15, 2013

By Tony Kennedy

It was June 21, 2012, and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was about to be confronted by officials of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in St. Paul had been under church supervision for sexual misconduct, and a mother had recently confronted him with suspicions that he was abusing her son. Now she had gone to officials at the chancery.

The doorbell rang, and in came the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the influential former vicar general, and Deacon John Vomastek, a former cop. A parish employee at the scene said they took Wehmeyer into a closed office. A short time later, according to the employee and police accounts, McDonough and Vomastek left the building, and Wehmeyer was left on his own to pack up and move out.

He was free for the next 28 hours, when police arrested him.

Law enforcement documents would later show that by the time police got to Blessed Sacrament, Wehmeyer had removed his camper from church property, McDonough had taken Wehmeyer’s work computer to the chancery and church officials had interviewed the child who first came forward to allege abuse.

The church’s handling of Wehmeyer’s case infuriated police, interfered with evidence and disrupted the early phase of the criminal investigation, according to law enforcement documents, a parish employee and St. Paul police Cmdr. Mary Nash.

“With them going and getting to Wehmeyer before us, it did complicate the case,” Nash said. “It gave him an opportunity to hide the scene of the crime [the camper] and to get out of the sight of police for the short term.”

Questions about McDonough’s and Vomastek’s actions were answered Thursday by archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso, who said the timeline in the police documents is inaccurate and the archdiocese worked closely with police. “We did not put the police at a disadvantage because they were notified throughout the entire time,’’ he said.

The 47-year-old priest quickly pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography, surprising investigators. But Nash said it was problematic for the archdiocese to conduct an initial interview of the victim and then tell Wehmeyer that he faced arrest. Removing one of the priest’s computers from his residence also “hindered the chain of evidence,” Nash said.

Wehmeyer’s sexual abuse of boys at Blessed Sacrament is one of a growing number of cases that have brought the archdiocese under intense criticism for its handling of clergy sex abuse cases. Now St. Paul police are investigating whether the archdiocese possibly overstepped legal boundaries by not immediately reporting the initial allegation.

Even if the probe doesn’t result in charges, the archdiocese violated best practices for handling such allegations, according to child protection advocates.

“You need to report immediately and then get out of the government’s way,” said Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University.

“The absolute standard is not to do your own investigation,” said Emily Huemann, director of Ramsey County’s sexual violence program.

Nash said the church’s lack of cooperation with police forced investigators to spend hours searching for the priest and the camper.

“You don’t know what happens in between them tipping him off and what he does or what evidence he could destroy in the meantime,” said Nash, who heads the Police Department’s family and sexual violence unit.

Accurso said police could have arrested Wehmeyer at Blessed Sacrament at 2 p.m. on June 21, 2012, but chose not to act. Police spokesman Howie Padilla said officers couldn’t arrest Wehmeyer at that time because investigators had not interviewed the victim or his mother, and lacked probable cause. Had the archdiocese alerted police earlier, those interviews would have been complete and Wehmeyer would have been arrested on the spot, Padilla said.

Timing in question

Wehmeyer is serving a five-year sentence for child sex abuse and child pornography. He pleaded guilty to abusing two boys, ages 12 and 14, in his camper on the church lot.

Nienstedt issued a public apology over the Wehmeyer case less than two months ago and said the church “immediately contacted law enforcement” after the first allegation of abuse.

Police records reviewed by the Star Tribune suggest that was not the investigators’ view of the case. In the full police report describing the 2012 arrest and prosecution of Wehmeyer, the first sign of notification by the archdiocese is an e-mail from Vomastek to the head of the sex crimes unit at 5:58 p.m. June 20. One day earlier, a church employee had “conducted a full interview of [the boy] and made an audio recording of it,” police records said.

Vomastek, a former senior St. Paul police commander who retired about two years ago to work for the archdiocese, e-mailed Cmdr. Axel Henry with a suspect’s name and the name of the victim’s mother.

Vomastek said in the e-mail: “Can you let me know if you have the original case of a few weeks ago when I called and if you need any help from our end? The person we talked about will be relieved of duties tomorrow.”

The next morning, Henry replied, “We have NO reports with the names provided. It could be possible that the family made the report and never gave a suspect name. If you have the original victim(s) names that would confirm this. Otherwise we will need to go to plan B because we have no report.”

Accurso said Wehmeyer’s name was not mentioned in the first discussions of the case but Vomastek did tell Henry that Wehmeyer was the suspect in a phone conversation before the e-mail.

On the morning when Wehmeyer was to be removed as pastor, Accurso said Vomastek called St. Paul police from the car. “Deacon Vomastek was calling the police and asking them to get over there,” said Accurso, who answered questions Thursday night with Vomastek at his side.

The police file shows that at 11 a.m. on June 21, while McDonough and Vomastek were reportedly confronting Wehmeyer, a police detective at the department received “preliminary information” about the abuse.

The timeline is important because state law requires “immediate” reporting of suspected child abuse to civil authorities by teachers, clergy members and other “mandated reporters.” Under extenuating circumstances, reports are required “as soon as possible but in no event longer than 24 hours,” the law says.

Vieth, who trains educators, clergy, medical professionals and others on how to respond to suspected child sexual abuse, said churches and other institutions have a right to act quickly to remove a potential predator — but they should only work in conjunction with law enforcement.

“You really need to talk to the police to make sure you are not contaminating their investigation,” Vieth said.

When an institution confronts a suspect before police, Vieth said, offenders have a chance to destroy evidence, silence victims and script their response to arrest.

Church interviews victim

The parish employee with knowledge of the police investigation said lead investigator Sgt. William Gillet was “furious” when he learned that an archdiocese employee had interviewed Wehmeyer’s victim. The police report indicates that the church interview was arranged June 18, two days before Vomastek first e-mailed Henry.

Huemann wouldn’t comment directly on the Wehmeyer case but said the “general scenario” of church officials interviewing a victim before calling police or a child protection agency subjects the victim to needless repeat interviews.

Nash said another danger of institutions’ interviewing the victims of their employees is that the victim can be unfairly led in one direction or another.

“You hand it off [to authorities] and they figure out who takes the lead,” Huemann said.

Evidence moved

Investigators were also frustrated by the church’s removal of Wehmeyer’s work computer and a pistol from the parish office.

Nash said the computer was considered evidence, and removing it from Wehmeyer’s residence was a clear break in the legal chain of custody that prosecutors must prove in disputed cases. Reports show that a lawyer for the archdiocese surrendered the computer to a police investigator four days after it was taken from Wehmeyer.

A law enforcement source said it was especially aggravating for police to know that Vomastek was involved. He was once in charge of police training in St. Paul and knew better, the source said.

When police searched Wehmeyer’s church residence after his arrest, they found an IBM ThinkPad computer in a closet. Police discovered that it belonged to Wehmeyer and was loaded with child porn. Police did not find the marijuana that Wehmeyer’s victims told police he had smoked during episodes of abuse, the source said.

In the time between the church officials’ visit and his arrest, Wehmeyer moved his portable camper to a private storage facility in Oakdale.

Police reports say Wehmeyer dropped it off about 1 p.m., just hours after he was confronted by McDonough. The manager told police that Wehmeyer returned to the trailer about 9:30 a.m. the next day and asked to go in it.

Police arrived about an hour later and confiscated the camper, which was clean inside and contained a portable television/DVD player but hardly anything else.

A few hours later, Wehmeyer was arrested at a friend’s house.

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