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Minnesota archbishop promises changes, says diocese will name priests known to have abused minors

ST. PAUL -- The Minneapolis-St. Paul Catholic archbishop promises “major changes” in how his diocese deals with priests accused of sex abuse.

Archbishop John Nienstedt’s comments Monday came after revelation that a Minnesota priest working on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation in the 1970s sexually abused boys. The church did not tell law enforcement authorities about the incidents and paid the priest extra when he agreed to retire early in 2003.

Nienstedt also said the diocese will release names of priests involved in sex abuse cases.

“We have now determined that a full review and analysis of the effectiveness of the (priest sex abuse) monitoring program is warranted and we will make major changes to the approach we have been taking with the program since its inception in 2005,” the archbishop said in a written statement. “We will obtain the recommendations of outside experts so that our program reflects best practices.”

Nienstedt was not clear if the diocese will release more priests’ names than already have been made public in media investigations into the issue and lawsuits.

The archbishop’s comment came in response to a Minnesota Public Radio report that Clarence Vavra sexually abused young boys while on a 1975-76 assignment on Rosebud reservation.

Vavra was ordained in 1965 and was removed from the ministry in 2003, with church leaders ordering him not to be involved in any clergy functions and to avoid all unsupervised contact with children.

Nienstedt said that in 1995, Vavra, now in his mid-70s, told church officials about the Rosebud incidents, but he was not removed from the ministry then.

“He was allowed to go back into active ministry under the supervision of other priests until 2003,” the archbishop said. “Vavra also engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with other adult males during his tenure as an active priest.”

Nienstedt added: “Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him. 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.”

The archbishop, who has held his position since 2008, said that under new church rules that if Vavra’s case occurred today, it would be handled differently.

The public radio report indicates that Vavra, who would not talk to reporters, lives in a small New Prague, Minn., home less than a block from a school.

“New Prague Area Schools Superintendent Tim Dittberner said no one notified the school about Vavra's history of abuse,” the radio report indicated. “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.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.