White Bear Lake priest abused two women as teens, they say

Pioneer Press, Minnesota/December 20, 2013

By Emily Gurnon

After the St. Paul police said in October that they wanted to hear from victims of clergy sexual abuse, a former White Bear Lake woman picked up the phone.

She called an investigator in that north suburban city, saying she had been abused by the Rev. Ambrose Filbin at St. Pius X in the 1960s, while she was in grade school there.

"He caught me in a (school supply) room and just started kissing me, French kissing," said the woman, who will be referred to as "Donna" for this report. It is not her real name. "And as I struggled to get away, he said, 'Coward.' "

She was 14.

Donna said Filbin followed up the kissing with fondling. She said the abuse lasted six years.

"You get caught up into the web, and you get mixed up," Donna said. "It's shrouded in what feels like affection. And you don't know how to get out of it."

The priest gave her the attention she craved. He promised he would never hurt her. He also belittled her, called her "my slave girl" and said no one would ever want to marry her, Donna said.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been the focus of scrutiny for the past three months. Information from a church whistleblower sparked news reports of the archdiocese's failures to deal with clergy sex abuse, including alleged cover-ups.

Filbin's name was not on a list a judge ordered the archdiocese to release this month of priests "credibly accused" of child sexual abuse. The Pioneer Press could find no evidence that Filbin had ever faced a public accusation, been sued or been charged criminally.

Asked what the archdiocese knew of Filbin's alleged misconduct, what allegations he faced, if any, and how the archdiocese responded, spokesman Jim Accurso said Friday that a "file review" had not been done on Filbin. He declined further comment.

Second woman recounts abuse

Filbin was in his 40s at the time of the alleged abuse of Donna. He died in February 1990 at age 75.

Donna recalled another girl who seemed to get a lot of attention from Filbin. Reached by the Pioneer Press, the second woman, who still lives in the Twin Cities, said that she, too, was a victim of Filbin's. She said the abuse started when she was 12, in seventh grade, also while attending St. Pius X school.

"He would come up (to greet me) and he would take both my hands and rub my chest" as he held her hands in his, said the other woman, who will be referred to here as "Theresa." It would happen anywhere others weren't around -- even in a school hallway. He kissed her, and "tried to stick his tongue in my mouth," she said.

Decades later, in the 1990s, Theresa says, she reported the abuse to the Rev. Kevin McDonough, then vicar general of the archdiocese. Filbin was dead by then. McDonough seemed surprised, she said.

" 'I knew he was an alcoholic, but I didn't know about that,' " she said McDonough told her. He expressed concern about her young age, but didn't ask for further specifics, Theresa said.

"It seemed like he just dropped it," she said.

McDonough was not available at his home or office for comment Friday.

'A wondeful priest'

The Rev. Martin Fleming, a retired priest living in St. Paul, served with Filbin at St. Pius X from 1962 to 1967. He called his older colleague smart, a good administrator and a good preacher.

"I have no knowledge of Father Ambrose Filbin being promiscuous or chasing around with young kids," he said.

Though Filbin lived in an apartment at the school and Fleming lived in the rectory, "we took our meals together and we had the same housekeeper," Fleming said. "There was no way that he could have had any kind of physical contact with the young ladies you were talking about without me knowing about it."

A relative of Filbin, who did not want his name used, said, "You're just looking to ruin the name of a man who was a wonderful priest." He declined further comment.

Both women said Filbin sniffed out their vulnerability.

"I was really naive -- I was the most innocent kid you've ever seen," Theresa said. "I was a great kid until then."

She also was miserable at home. Her parents were strict disciplinarians. They controlled her every move. Her father had a good heart, Theresa said, but sometimes it led to physical punishment. In contrast, Filbin let her smoke and poured her stiff drinks, she says.

As time went on, she said, she began to realize that what Filbin was doing with her was wrong. She threatened to tell someone about it.

"He said, 'Nobody would believe you,' and that's true," Theresa said.

She also felt ashamed and guilty.

"When I was young, I thought it was a sin to bring scandal to someone's name, so I never would tell anybody," she said. "I didn't want to scandalize him."

One fellow priest at St. Pius X noticed Filbin spending a lot of time with Theresa. He once saw her sitting on Filbin's desk, the Rev. George Coleman told Theresa, and that sort of thing didn't look good.

After Theresa relayed his comment to Filbin, she said, Filbin told her that he was transferring Coleman. Not long after, Coleman was moved to another parish, Theresa said. Coleman has since died.

St. Pius X school consisted of grades kindergarten through eight. In ninth grade, Theresa went to another school. There, she got to know a monk.

"He said to me, 'You look so sad.' "

She opened up to the man. She told him what Filbin was doing. He responded with kindness -- and with anger at Filbin. But Theresa has no idea if the monk ever reported her allegations to church officials.

Slow healing

Though she never put the abuse completely out of her mind, Theresa said she did not process it until many years later.

It was at the time her son was in seventh grade -- about the same age that she had been when the abuse started. She had a deeply traumatic dream that men were chasing the boy and that he was going to be raped.

"I just begged them, 'Please take me, let him go,' and I said to (my son), 'Run, run!' "

She couldn't ignore it any longer.

Theresa found help through counseling and eventually told some family members. But the healing has been slow, she said.

What bothers her even more than the abuse is how it was handled, Theresa said.

"I figured the priests were sick, though there's no excuse for it," she said. "But to keep switching them around (to other parishes) ... I found that more offensive than anything."

Filbin also served at St. Joseph's in Red Wing; St. Helena in Minneapolis; and in Northfield, Lake Benton and Eden Valley, according to the Official Catholic Directory. After his time at St. Pius X, where he was pastor from 1955 to 1980, he moved to St. Ignatius in Annandale and then to St. Bridget in Lindstrom. He retired in 1980.

The officials should be held responsible, Theresa said. Instead, "these guys get off scot-free, and that bothers me."

'Robbed of my teenage years'

Donna, the other woman who said she was abused by Filbin, said she had to grow up fast at home because she was busy taking care of brothers and sisters.

"I was craving attention," she said. "I was giving it out to younger siblings."

Filbin came into that gap. Her parents were heavily involved with the church, and everyone put Filbin -- as they did all priests -- on a pedestal, Donna said. He could do no wrong. She internalized that, she said.

The priest told her she was "old enough now that you don't have to tell your mother everything," referring, she said, to what he was doing with her sexually.

The church rectory was across the street from the school, but Filbin kept his apartment in the school building and slept there, Donna said.

"That should have been a big red flag for everybody," she said. "Maybe the nuns knew. I do believe people knew and just didn't talk about it."

Fleming, his former colleague, said Friday that the rectory was not big enough for both priests.

After Donna left for high school, she kept coming back to Filbin. She didn't know how to get out of it, she said. When it came time for her to enter a Twin Cities college, Filbin told Donna's mother it would be best if she lived at home, rather than in the dorm. She believes now that it was Filbin's way of keeping her close. Her parents took the priest's advice.

"I really was robbed of my teenage years," she said. "I never had normal dating."

Police response

Both women reported the abuse in recent weeks to White Bear Lake police.

Capt. Randy Johnson said Friday that he and another officer took the reports. If Filbin is, in fact, dead, he said, police obviously can't prosecute him. As to the possibility of investigating actions by higher officials if they knew of allegations, Johnson said, "I would have to consult with the Ramsey County attorney's office to see what their direction would be on something like that."

Since the archdiocese is based in St. Paul, that would be outside his jurisdiction, Johnson said.

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