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Duluth bishops were warned about sex abuse, documents show

A number of priests accused of sexual misconduct were given refuge at parishes within the Diocese of Duluth, where they had access to children and enjoyed the protection of diocesan leaders, according to long-confidential documents made public Mo...

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Revs. Alfred Longley (left) and Bernard Bissonnette
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A number of priests accused of sexual misconduct were given refuge at parishes within the Diocese of Duluth, where they had access to children and enjoyed the protection of diocesan leaders, according to long-confidential documents made public Monday.

The documents, pertaining to four former priests and spanning from the 1950s to 1970s, were released by attorneys representing numerous abuse victims.

The release marks the first time Diocese of Duluth abuse documents have been made public, attorney Mike Finnegan said.

"What these documents show is that there were a number of offenders in this diocese that were allowed to operate and allowed to access the kids for years and years," Finnegan said at a press conference. "And we do believe these individuals, given their histories, abused a number of kids here."

The documents were made public after being admitted into evidence in a recent trial against the Diocese of Duluth. In that case, a Ramsey County jury awarded $8.1 million in damages to Bill Weis, who was abused by a priest in Squaw Lake in the 1970s.

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The documents cover the Revs. Gregory Manning, Alfred Longley, Bernard Bissonnette and Charles Gormly. All four are deceased.

Susan Gaertner, an attorney for the diocese, said three of the four priests were sent away for treatment and did not return after abuse allegations were raised. The fourth, Longley, never actually served in the Duluth diocese, she said.

"I think it's important to remember those key facts," Gaertner said in an interview Monday night. "These documents don't tell a story of negligence by the Diocese of Duluth."

Documents contained warning signs

Included in the documents was a 1966 letter from Francis Schenk, then the Duluth bishop, addressed to all Catholic bishops in the country, seeking a home for Bissonnette.

Bissonnette had worked in the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., but was sent to treatment facilities in New Mexico and later Nevis, Minn., after abuse allegations arose. Schenk wrote in the letter that he accepted Bissonnette to work in Nashwauk, where he spent several months taking confessions and offering Masses.

"From time to time I have given guest priests of these two institutions a chance to rehabilitate themselves in the Diocese of Duluth," he wrote to his colleagues. "Unfortunately, all of these former ventures turned out quite miserably."

Despite what he deemed Bissonnette's "rather strange combination of subservience to authority and of resentment toward authority," the then-bishop wrote that he was determined to allow the priest to find work in a Catholic high school.

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"I am concerned that Father Bissonnette be given a chance to reestablish himself," Schenk wrote. "I do think that is possible. It is frightening to abandon a priest who appears to be struggling earnestly, and with some evidence of success, to gain the necessary control over himself."

Another document shows that the diocese was warned as early as 1958 that the issues that caused priests to molest children were not "curable," despite efforts by leaders to retain accused clergymen.

In a letter to then-Bishop Thomas Welch, officials at the New Mexico treatment facility advised against allowing accused priests to continue in ministry. Bissonnette and Manning were among priests sent to the facility, known as Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete.

"I feel so keenly about the terrible devastation these men accomplish in starting innocent boys towards a life career of abnormality that I personally wish that the Holy Father would make a penalty for them that would 'ipso facto' bar them for life from the care of souls," the facility's founder, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, wrote to the bishop.

"They are dangerous, always dangerous and whenever we have gone after conviction and approved their activation, we have had uniformly cause to regret."

Only the beginning

Finnegan contended that the documents demonstrate that children in Northeastern Minnesota were consistently placed in danger.

"These documents alarm us and make us very, very concerned that there are a lot of survivors in this community, and in the communities of the Diocese of Duluth, that were hurt by these perpetrators," he said.

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Gaertner said there is no record of any of the priests being accused of abuse during their time in the Diocese of Duluth.

Further, she urged caution in drawing conclusions about the actions of diocesan leaders at the time.

"Forty to 50 years later, these documents are being viewed through a prism of what we know now," Gaertner said. "Of course, we've learned a lot as a society, as a community, about people who offend against children.

"Back then, people in the church, and people in all kinds of institutions, had reason to believe that issues could be addressed by professionals. In retrospect, those might've been incorrect judgements, but they were made in good faith based on what people knew then."

The names of Bissonnette and Longley are not included in the diocese's list of priests it considers "credibly accused" or abuse. Gaertner said the diocese would look at whether they should be added to the list, which currently includes 31 names.

The documents are the first to be released, but victims' advocates said they only scratch the surface. Finnegan and Verne Wagner, the northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reiterated their demands for a full public release of documents.

"The only we can keep this from happening is to get these secret documents made public," Wagner said. "That's the only way this is going to continue to happen, to find out who else was molested and to stop this practice of hiding these priests."

Gaertner said the diocese is "trying to be as transparent as possible," but said the issue of document releases should be addressed through court proceedings.

Numerous cases have been brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which was approved by the Legislature in 2013 to temporarily remove the statute of limitations for abuse victims to file suit.

Five lawsuits are pending against the diocese in State District Court, according to online records. More than a dozen claims have been filed with the diocese to this point, Gaertner said.

"It's in the context of those litigation matters that issues of what will and will not be publicly released at any given time need to be addressed," she said.

Finnegan said he is expecting to see a number of additional lawsuits filed ahead of the May 25 deadline imposed by the Legislature.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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