HIBBING - Catholic Priest Brian Lederer was found not guilty Monday of all six charges against him of inappropriately touching young girls.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated less than two hours before returning the verdict in State District Court after a four-day trial.
Lederer, 30, the former priest at Blessed Sacrament Parish and Assumption Catholic School in Hibbing, was charged in May, 2015 with four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. The charges stem from allegations by four girls, age 11-13 at the time, that Lederer touched them inappropriately.
The most serious charges against Lederer carried a potential penalty of up to 25 years in prison.
Lederer and members of his family declined to comment after the verdict. Wold, however, said the jury made the logical choice.
“I’m pleased. It was the right verdict if you heard the evidence,” said Peter Wold, Lederer’s lead defense attorney, told reporters outside the courtroom. The prosecution's case “didn’t come close to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
St. Louis County Prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich declined to comment on the verdict.
Lederer’s future as a priest is uncertain. He remains on administrative leave, as he has been since charges were filed, said Kyle Eller, communications director for the Diocese of Duluth.
“There’s still a civil process that’s ongoing, and then after that there will be the question of how church law deals with it. So there’s a little bit left up in the air with that,” Eller said.
In closing arguments Monday morning before the jury deliberated, Vlatkovich portrayed Lederer as a conniving pedophile who was grooming young girls to be his victims of sexual abuse all while befriending their families as their parish priest. He said Lederer’s behavior went far beyond the norms of any teacher or adult working with young girls and that the girls testimony in court last week - that Lederer touched the in sexual places and manners - should be deemed honest and accurate.
“The defendant's true intent became clear when he touched (one victim’s) crotch and inner thigh,” Vlatkovich told jurors, saying the young priest’s actions - often touching, hugging and massaging the girls - was “part of a grooming process that occurred over a couple of years.”
“Who grabs an 11-year-old girl under the skirt to lift her up? Who does that? And why?” Vlatkovich asked jurors, citing another of the allegations against Lederer. He added that the girls had nothing to gain by lying or embellishing stories but that Lederer had everything to gain by lying about his actions. “Kids lie to get out of trouble, not to get into it.”
But Wold painted Lederer as a caring, giving pastor who became the victim of pre-teen girls’ imaginations and of fabricated stories. He said the four girls were inconsistent in their testimony of the alleged actions and were often unable to pinpoint where or when a situation occurred.
Wold painted a picture of young girls vying for the attention of a beloved priest who helped them do their homework, accompanied them on field trips and even came into their homes for meals and games. At some point, for some reason, the girls turned against him.
Wold suggested that one of the girls may have been jealous that Lederer was paying too much attention to her mother or her sister.
“Stories developed and the snowball started rolling and it grew.” he said.
“When children talk about their stories amongst themselves they become similar… and often competitive,” Wold told the jury. “There is a reason that their stories don’t match up. It’s tough to keep a story straight when the truth isn’t in it.”
Wold said there were no other witnesses to the alleged incidents even though all occurred in public places or homes with other people in the same room. He also said investigators found no evidence of Lederer stalking the four girls when they searched his home, phones and computers.
“Did you see one thing that showed this man was infatuated with these girls? Anything? Anything that suggest this man is a pedophile? Not a thing,” Wold said.
Lederer, who appeared in court in a blue, open-collar shirt and having shaved his beard since his arrest, has been free on bail pending the trial. Several of his family members were in the court for the proceedings; some sobbed with joy and hugged outside the courtroom after the not guilty verdict was read aloud.
Sixth Judicial District Judge David Ackerson previously denied a defense motion to dismiss the felony charges against Lederer, concluding that a jury should decide whether Lederer is guilty.
Authorities have also charged Lederer with possession of child pornography after recovering images of suspected child pornography from his computer, but Ackerson in December granted a motion to sever that count from the case, finding that it was not part of the “single behavioral incident.”
Wold said Lederer could “potentially” still be prosecuted on those charges.
News Tribune staff writer Peter Passi contributed to this story.