'A fair outcome?' - What an abuse allegation and its fallout can teach the Church
A Pillar longread
Clare Friis is funny, personable, and exceedingly blunt. A nurse from Minnesota, she has a deadpan self-deprecating delivery, a talent for choosing just the right .gif for the moment, and a well-honed sense of fairness. Clare is also a survivor of sexual assault. And against long odds, Clare Friis is a practicing and faithful Catholic.
Clare says she was sexually assaulted by a volunteer at her parish when she was a teenager. She alleges that her parish priest failed to act when she told him what had happened, and that her archdiocese has not yet done enough to handle the priest’s inaction.
The volunteer was permitted to continue helping at parish events even after Friis reported her allegations against him to the police, and until she named him and the allegations in an October 2019 Facebook post.
The parish priest says he doesn’t remember being told about the alleged assault, while the archdiocese says it worked to find the most just resolution possible in a difficult situation, through a process that lasted more than two years after officials were first informed about the allegation.
Advocates for ecclesiastical reform told The Pillar that Clare Friis’ story raises important questions. They said it points to the importance of a shift in focus and approach for some Church leaders — a look beyond an often unproductive “he said-she said paradigm,” and toward a focus on pastoral care.
“I was very blunt about what happened”
When she was 15, Clare Friis was sexually assaulted four times by an adult volunteer during youth events connected to her parish, the Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, she told The Pillar.
Friis, now 29, alleges that back in 2007, a parish volunteer named Robert Plante groped her genitals, buttocks, and breasts on four separate occasions — at parties for her homeschooling group, and on a sledding trip — even pinning her to a couch during one assault.
After they happened, it was hard for Friis to talk about the assaults, she said.
She told only a few friends. She drew back from her social life and from Church events. She found herself sometimes filled with rage, and lashed out at her mom over small things.
“I had had it. I was at that point getting scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Her parents could tell something was wrong. When they pressed her on why she didn’t want to go to Church functions, she told them a version of what happened — but not everything.
She told them Plante made her uncomfortable. That he was sometimes touchy, and “too close.”
“I hate Robert,” she remembers saying. “I hate being around him.”
Her parents asked if Plante had touched her sexually. But “I wasn’t ready. And I knew what it would mean to tell them everything, and I couldn’t. I just wasn’t ready.”
Friis’ dad, Bob, called Plante, and then sat down with him for a talk. Bob said that Plante should leave Clare alone. And for a while, Friis said, Plante “kept his distance.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a few years after that talk “that he would sometimes come up to me again and give me a hug or just make small talk.”
In March 2014, seven years after the alleged assaults, Friis was finishing college, and Plante was still involved in youth events at the parish.
Friis told The Pillar that around that time, she heard rumors about other incidents in which Plante engaged in inappropriate behavior, some from years before he had assaulted her. She had concerns about his volunteer work at the parish.
So she went to speak with her pastor, Fr. Thomas Dufner, whom she and her family had known for years.
Friis recounted details of the conversation. She says she told the priest she was uncomfortable that Plante was volunteering at youth events. She raised to him some things she had heard about Plante’s past.
“And finally he asked ‘Clare, is there anything I should know to protect my flock?’”
She told the priest she had been assaulted seven years earlier. She gave him details.
“I was very, very direct. I was very blunt about what happened,” she told The Pillar.
Friis told The Pillar that Dufner offered an apology “on behalf of all men” and said the abuse “should never have happened.”
Dufner asked whether her parents knew about the assaults, and whether she had reported them to the police. Friis says that when she answered “no,” the priest changed the subject, and he didn’t bring up the assault allegations again.
Four years passed after that 2014 conversation before Friis and Dufner would talk about Plante again.
For a lot of Catholics, the 2018 scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report reopened the difficulties they thought had mostly concluded in the early 2000s, after the “Spotlight” scandals on clerical sexual abuse began a period in Church history remembered as the “long Lent of 2002.”
But in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Catholics have faced a lot of difficult years, and more than a few long Lents.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2015, amid 450 claims of clerical sexual abuse, and was one of the first to face criminal charges as an institution. It saw former Archbishop John Nienstedt resign over allegations of cover-up, mishandling abuse cases, and personal misconduct. Other archdiocesan officials were also found to have committed acts of negligence in leadership positions.
In many ways, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been at the center of the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the United States.
But in recent years, the archdiocese has garnered praise from many victims’ advocates and safe environment professionals, because of a turnaround credited to Archbishop Bernard Hebda, a canon and civil lawyer who took over temporary leadership of the archdiocese in 2015, and became its archbishop the next year.
Still, when the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in 2018, and the scandal of clerical sexual abuse shocked the Church, a group of young adult Catholics in the Minnesota archdiocese decided there was more their own archdiocese could do. They formed a group called YA Respond, which aimed to engage Catholics in broad conversation about ecclesial reform.
The group held a prayer vigil on the steps of the archdiocesan cathedral, and in September 2018 its members sent a letter to Hebda, calling for the reopening of an investigation into Nienstedt, a more rigorous study on the causes of clerical sexual abuse, increased transparency and lay involvement, and more training for priests and other pastoral leaders on how to talk about sexual abuse.
YA Respond also made “a recommendation for all pastors, clergy, and Church leaders throughout this Archdiocese: Take personal responsibility for these crises and publicly accept the moral guilt associated with the sins of our clergy and Archdiocesan leaders.”
Among the letter’s 100 signatories was Clare Friis.
There are a lot of reasons why Friis got involved with YA Respond. But one of them was deeply personal.
In June 2018, Friis was assaulted during and after the reception of her best friend’s wedding. A drunken wedding guest groped her repeatedly, and he held himself against her body forcefully even after she insisted that he stop.
Friis contacted the police almost immediately. The assailant eventually pled guilty to the crime of “lewd and lascivious behavior.” He was fined and sentenced to a year’s probation, and because he was drunk at time of the assaults, a judge forbade him from drinking alcohol for the entirety of that year.
At sentencing, the judge called her assailant’s actions “unacceptable” and “very wrong.”
YA Respond was, for Friis, a way to make a stand against sexual assault, and to advocate for change in the aftermath of her own 2018 assault.
And, she says, she was encouraged by the #MeToo movement, and especially the courage of Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who in 2016 became the first woman to accuse disgraced former coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was eventually found to have committed hundreds of acts of sexual abuse.
As police investigated the 2018 assault, and as she continued advocacy with YA Respond, Friis decided to report to the police the abuse she had experienced in 2007.
But first, she decided to call Dufner.
“She can’t be next”
While she prepared to make a police report, Friis said, she called Fr. Dufner in August 2018. She asked if he had made a parish report back in 2014, or contacted the archdiocese, or kept any information on file. She also wanted to know why Plante was still continuing to help with parish youth events, four years after she’d first told her pastor that she had been assaulted.
According to Friis, Dufner said on the phone that he remembered what she had told him four years earlier, but that he hadn’t done anything about it.
When she told the priest she was going to call the police about the abuse, Friis says Dufner discouraged her, suggesting she “let sleeping dogs lie,” and that it would be better “not to relive that.”
After that call, Friis says she didn’t report the alleged abuse right away. She says she was working through her experiences. But eventually she knew had to call the police. She was concerned that the man she says abused her might abuse other children.
Friis remembers going to Mass at Epiphany, with her family in October 2018, a few months after she talked with Dufner on the phone.
During a coffee hour after Mass, she watched a little girl run up to the volunteer she says had assaulted her and grab his leg, thinking it was her dad.
“And I knew who the little girl was, and I knew who she belonged to. I was just like, ‘She can’t be next. There can’t be another one.’ And so I reported it that week.”
Friis says that just before she reported the assaults, her dad approached Fr. Dufner to let him know she’d be making a call to the police. She said the priest pressed her dad to get details about what she planned to say. She says the conversation was tense.
Dufner declined to answer questions about that conversation.
When asked about the other conversations Friis described, the ones in 2014 and 2018, Dufner told The Pillar “I do not recall Clare telling me she was abused.”
“I am very sorry for all that Clare has had to endure,” he added.
Friis filed a police report with the Anoka County Sheriff's Office on October 9, 2018, alleging that she had been sexually assaulted four times by Robert Plante, the parish volunteer. She described the alleged assaults in detail to a police investigator.
The Pillar obtained and reviewed the police investigation file.
During their investigation, police spoke with another woman who says that she was also assaulted by Plante as a teenager. Details of her story were similar to Clare’s, but she told police she didn’t want to pursue any charges.
Investigators also spoke with a woman who recalled Friis telling her that Plante had grabbed her genitals, but did not remember the timeline. Another woman, a Church friend from Clare’s childhood, said that she could remember a phone call in which Clare was very upset about something that had happened with Plante, but she could not remember the details.
When he was interviewed by police, Plante admitted that he had tickled Friis “four or five times” when she was a teenager. He said he found her “sensitivity to being tickled as funny.” (sic).
Plante said he had never intended any sexual contact, and that he had never touched Friis’ genitals, buttocks, or breasts. He denied all allegations of sexual assault.
When a police officer asked if Friis was making her allegations up, Plante told him “that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Almost a year after Friis filed the police report, district attorneys decided not to prosecute charges against Plante.
There was an “absence of corroborating evidence” a prosecutor wrote in September 2019, and with a lack of useful witnesses, “the State would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the conduct occurred.”
“The other potential witnesses’ inability to to recall any of the events,” the prosecutor added, “and the absence of anyone observing the conduct,” would lead to questions about the reliability of Clare’s account.
“Thus we must decline prosecution.”
Plante has not yet responded to The Pillar’s attempts to contact him.
Friis wanted to report more than the initial abuse. She wanted the archdiocese to know that she had told Fr. Dufner about what had happened to her, and that he hadn’t done anything to help, or removed the volunteer, or otherwise addressed the situation.
She didn’t think that was right.
Friis says she first spoke with Archbishop Hebda in March 2019 about Dufner’s failure to remove the parish volunteer or report to anyone the allegations she first disclosed in 2014.
After that meeting, Friis told The Pillar, nothing happened for months.
“I gave Archbishop Hebda the run down in March of 2019. My interpretation of why nothing was done is he was waiting for me to say I wanted something to be done. However, I felt that by me having a private meeting with him and voicing my concerns about Fr. Dufner, he would take initiative and do something. I can't quite remember what exactly exchanged between us, but that was the impression I got,” Friis told The Pillar.
In October 2019, Friis decided to go public with her story. She posted a Facebook status about her experiences of having been sexually assaulted, publicly naming Plante, and noting that the allegations against him were not prosecuted.
“When I asked my lawyer if I could tell my story, she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You tell whomever you want. You tell your church. You tell your friends. You tell everyone what he did to you, if that’s what you want. He no longer has power over you. Truth is an absolute defense. Tell people,’” Friis wrote.
A month after that Facebook post, she met with Hebda again. That time, she said, “I was specific that I wanted something done, and I thought he was going to either do something, like speak to Fr. Dufner, or get me in contact with [archdiocesan safe environment director] Tim [O’Malley].
“This is when he took notes and I gave him specific details about my abuser, Robert Plante; as well as telling him exactly what I told Fr. Dufner. He said he would reach out to Tim, who would reach out to me.”
In January 2020, Friis and a friend, Chris Damian, met with Tim O’Malley. Friis repeated details of the alleged abuse, and the 2014 and 2018 conversations she says she had with Dufner.
Friis said O’Malley listened, but offered few solutions.
According to Minnesota state law, Dufner was not required to make a police report about the abuse Clare allegedly disclosed to him in 2014 and 2018, because of the time that had passed since it happened. While current archdiocesan policy would have required Dufner to report the allegation to the archdiocese, it’s not clear whether that would have been true in 2014.
Nevertheless, Friis was not the only one to raise concerns about Dufner to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In March 2020, after it reviewed Friis’ criminal complaint, the Ramsey County prosecutor’s office —whose jurisdiction includes the archdiocesan headquarters — contacted the archdiocese to express concern about Dufner’s apparent failure to respond to Clare’s 2014 report.
A prosecutor also contacted Friis.
“It is the position of our office that the Archdiocese should investigate and address Father Dufner’s response to your disclosure,” a prosecutor wrote to Friis after reviewing the Anoka County police investigation and meeting with Friis.
“We expect this will be done with some degree of urgency,” the prosecutor added, noting that “the archdiocese has made a public commitment to continue to protect all individuals from sexual abuse.”
Friis said she had expected - or at least hoped - that after her complaint to the archdiocese, and contact from a county prosecutor, Dufner would be removed from leadership of her family’s parish, at least temporarily.
But he wasn’t.
Instead, in April 2020, O’Malley asked Friis to participate in a restorative justice session with Dufner. Restorative justice programs aim to facilitate healing, dialogue, and mutual understanding of how others have been affected by abuse or other misconduct.
Friis said she’d been hurt, and she wanted Dufner to admit that. She wasn’t enthusiastic about a restorative justice process.
“I’m not interested in that. And frankly neither is he. Like, he’s not willing to say that he was wrong. He’s not willing to admit that he didn’t do something that he should have. That he was wrong in any way.”
“While the movement of restorative justice can be really beneficial for some instances, it's not for others. And I think it just furthers abuse to the victim, if this is what the archdiocese is pushing, when it seems pretty clear that there's no intention of changing,” she told The Pillar.
Still, in May 2020, seeing no other options, Friis asked the archdiocese to move forward with the meeting. But no meeting happened.
The archdiocese was impacted, like everyone in America, by the coronavirus pandemic. And then by the unfolding response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Things were moving slowly. No meeting was scheduled. It was, after all, 2020. And Friis tried to be understanding about that.
But by mid-June, she was starting to wonder if anything was actually going to happen.
“I understand that there has been a lot going on with our local church right now, from the re-opening of churches to dealing with the murder of George Floyd,” she emailed O’Malley on June 16.
“I don’t want to come across as rude, but I want to be taken care of by my church and I do not feel taken care of. Due to the lack of action and communication, it seems like this is being pushed to the side.”
“I’ve experienced quite a bit of anxiety from this delay and have had to attend a couple church events led by Fr. Dufner,” she wrote.
O’Malley responded the same day.
“I’m sorry this has taken too long. You are not rude. Just the opposite. You’ve been generously patient. I promise this is not being pushed aside or ignored. I’d strongly prefer that you stay in contact and express frustrations, rather than not hold us accountable to our commitment to act.”
“I spoke with the [archbishop] today, and emphasized the importance of taking action as soon as possible. I’m confident he understands your concerns and our obligations,” he wrote.
In late June, things got complicated.
Dufner had a meeting at the chancery. After the meeting, he called Friis’ parents, apparently telling them that he wasn’t sure why he was being asked by archdiocesan officials about Plante. The conversation was tense; Clare later called it harassment.
Clare said Dufner also called a priest she knew who had been at Epiphany in 2007, raising questions and concerns about her report to the archdiocese.
Friis said after that, she wasn’t interested in a restorative justice meeting. She thought the priest had crossed a line, and she thought his faculties should be removed.
In early July, Friis and her dad met with O’Malley and Hebda.
According to Friis, Hebda said he was in a difficult position: While Clare thought the priest should be removed from his parish, no canonical crime had been committed. And while Clare said Dufner had allowed an alleged abuser to remain a parish volunteer for years, Dufner denied the allegations. While Clare said Dufner’s conversations with her father should prove what he knew, the priest said he remembered the conversation differently.
Clare thought her allegations should be enough for Dufner to face some ecclesiastical consequences. But, she said, Hebda didn’t seem to her to see it that way. She told The Pillar that Hebda’s primary concern seemed to be reforming Dufner, helping him do better next time, while Clare wanted to see justice.
But whatever justice might eventually come, it would continue to face delays.
There was no clear path forward, but Clare and O’Malley were in contact through the summer of 2020, and then through the fall. During that time, Dufner met with the archdiocese: he denied Clare’s accounts of their conversations in 2014 and 2018, and of his conversation with Clare’s father in 2018.
In December 2020, Clare says O’Malley told her that Dufner had admitted to the archbishop that he had “messed up” by not reporting the abuse. But after that, she says, she didn’t hear much more, for months.
Clare started to feel like things were worse than before she reported them: The priest had not taken seriously an abuse claim, and then she felt the archdiocese was not taking seriously her concern about that.
She said she had the feeling “they wanted me to go away. And that they were just hoping this would wear me out.”
“Inadequate pastoral response”
Eventually, in early March 2021, two years after she had first spoken with Hebda, Friis met with O’Malley and the archbishop at the archdiocesan chancery.
“It wasn’t awesome,” Friis told The Pillar.
The archdiocese had decided the priest would be subject to a six-step evaluation and rehabilitation process. During that process, he would be “equipped with the tools and skills necessary to act as a pastor and be better suited for that role in dealing with victim-survivors,” Friis said.
She says Hebda told her he thinks Dufner had an “inadequate pastoral response” to her allegations.
Friis was incredulous.
“My first thought was: ‘It took you 14 months to come up with that?’”
“They do not dispute the facts. They think that this is the correct response,” she added. “They have told me that I am a credible witness. They have told me that they believe me. They think this is the appropriate response.”
Friis said she was frustrated. If the archdiocese didn’t believe Dufner had the ability to be a pastor, and his deficits had been harmful to his parishioners, why would he continue in the role?
“It seems to me that they’re more concerned with him and his pastoral rights than they are about the damage that he did to me and to my family. And the whole meeting was pretty focused on Fr. Dufner and focused on ‘how can we better integrate him?’ and no question was about ‘what can we do to make this better for you?’.”
There was a moment, Friis said, when Hebda said he was concerned that removing Dufner from the parish would make things difficult for her and her family because of how other parishioners might react.
That “just sits weird with me,” she said, adding that she had already by that time named her alleged abuser publicly. She said she was focused on justice in the parish, and she didn’t think the archdiocesan plan was enough.
“I don’t think they really know how to respond to the fact that I wasn’t happy with the plan,” Friis added.
For his part, Dufner said the process has been helpful.
“I am now in the middle of a multi-step process (working with Archbishop Hebda, Tim [O’Malley], victim/survivors, members of our Archdiocesan Review Board and other professionals) to better listen to all people with whom I come into contact – in particular, those who have been abused – with the ultimate goal of being the best pastor, priest and person I can be,” he told The Pillar.
“I really appreciate the feedback I’m getting and the opportunity for growth professionally and personally.”
Friis told The Pillar that from her perspective, a focus on “rehabilitating” the priest ignored those who might have suffered, or been put in danger, because of his alleged decisions.
A bishop’s ‘wide latitude’ to care for the flock
Chris Damian is a member of YA Respond, an attorney, and a friend of Friis. He’s attended archdiocesan meetings with her, and has followed the case closely. He said the archdiocesan decision left him confused and discouraged.
“The archdiocese has determined that there is a lack of skills needed for the role that [Dufner] has. So there has already been kind of a determination, and yet he still continues to be in his role,” Damian said.
At the very least, Damian said, the archdiocese could have better exemplified its commitment to addressing the issue by temporarily removing Dufner from the parish while it was investigated.
“I think that the archbishop is very well-intentioned. I think that the people working on this are very well-intentioned. They want to do right by everyone involved. But unfortunately when it comes to sexual abuse and trauma, good intentions are not always enough, and sometimes good intentions can do more harm than good.”
“I don't think that someone who commits even a very grievous crime should be removed from the Catholic communion for all of eternity. I do think that there should still be a context for forgiveness and healing. [But] I think that we need to not put the burden on victims to facilitate that and make it happen,” he added.
Daniel Quinan is a Minnesota canon lawyer, and the canonical advisor to YA Respond. Quinan is employed by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, but is not involved in handling allegations against clergy.
Quinan said he was surprised by the archdiocese’s decision. He said it points to a necessary change in perspective for diocesan leaders, and offers some important lessons to be learned.
“Having simply watched the process from the ‘outside,’ and listened to Clare's perspective and experience, my own impression is that our archdiocese clearly has significant room for continued growth and improvement in how we address concerns like this in the future.”
“Even accounting for the inevitable delays occasioned by everything that was the year 2020, it seems like there were still several surprising delays; and if even archdiocesan leadership agrees that the process should not have taken this long, then it seems worthwhile drawing attention to this so that we can learn how to avoid repeating these delays in the future,” he told The Pillar.
Quinan added that he is “perplexed by the apparent outcome of this process, insofar as any sort of mandatory pastoral rehabilitation process seems to be in serious tension with (if not simply incompatible with) remaining in office as a pastor.”
“I would have expected that, upon the very moment that archdiocesan leadership identified any sort of inadequate pastoral skills – not only in the past, but apparently even at the present, at least with sufficient certitude and gravity to mandate a six-step rehabilitation process here and now – then by that very fact, the pastor's ministry might qualify as ‘ineffective for any cause, even through no grave personal negligence.’”
The canon lawyer said he believes there was “a firm basis for a process resulting in at least his temporary removal from the parish, until the rehabilitation process is completed to the satisfaction of archdiocesan leadership.”
Quinan said those options might actually have been considered by archdiocesan leaders in the years they considered the case, “but without access to a clear and persuasive understanding of why the process unfolded in the way it did, I share Clare's disappointment with the apparent resolution, and hope that we can learn more satisfactory ways of addressing and resolving legitimate concerns about non-criminal pastoral failures in the future.”
He made suggestions for how the issues in this case, and others like it, might be handled differently.
Quinan said that in his view, dioceses dealing with allegations of misconduct sometimes place too much of their focus on discovering whether priests have committed canonical crimes.
Bishops should take a broader view, Quinan added, and canon law provides a bishop tools for ensuring that “the proper care of souls in his diocese is not impeded.”
“A bishop has very broad latitude to care for his flock, and if a pastor’s ministry has failed in certain important ways, there are a wealth of flexible options in the law that could be explored.”
The canon lawyer said the standard for evaluating whether a pastor should be removed from office, for example, is not only whether a priest has committed some direct policy violation, but whether “a pastor's ministry has become ‘harmful [or] ineffective for any cause’ according to the prudent judgment of the bishop.”
That standard, Quinan said, is a comprehensive judgement of the bishop, which takes into account his relationship with parishioners and his reputation among them.
Removal from office “implies absolutely no crime, no penalty, nor even any grave fault or culpability on the part of the pastor,” he added.
Quinan said that even if a bishop decides not to remove a pastor accused of negligence, “the bishop could explore the possibility of issuing canonical warnings, rebukes, or penances to the pastor. Or even more gently, he might consider issuing a singular precept enjoining the pastor ‘to do or omit something’ related to the reasonable concerns that he believes have been raised.”
“For instance, if the bishop is convinced that a pastor has disregarded diocesan COVID-19 protocols, or has demonstrated an inadequate pastoral response toward his parishioners, that pastor might be ordered to follow the protocols in the future, or to refrain from certain problematic actions, or even to issue an apology to those who have been harmed (even inadvertently) by his actions,” the canon lawyer said.
He added that dioceses can improve their response to allegations by “a renewed focus on implementing proactive measures – such as canonical precepts, tailored to fit individual concerns – as a means to help shift the diocese away from a habitual defensive posture in which every concern or complaint from the faithful is treated almost analogously to putting the pastor on trial. We might even begin to find ourselves thinking along the lines that ‘if nothing can be proven, then nothing can be done’ – when, on the contrary, the law only marks off certain extremes from easy consideration, leaving a wide area of flexibility for the bishop to engage with the concerns of the faithful in more constructive and creative ways.”
Quinan also urged “helping the lay faithful to more clearly understand the expectations that they can have, if they choose to bring forward a complaint about their pastor. The reality might be that, out of a desire to avoid micromanaging pastors, there is little or nothing that diocesan leadership is willing to do (rightly or wrongly) when complaints are raised, unless those complaints cross a certain threshold of gravity, and/or a certain threshold of indisputable proof.”
“The reality might also be that, when concerns (however legitimate) do not rise to the level of a clear canonical crime, diocesan leadership will almost never be willing to act very quickly, and that slow-moving (multi-month, even year-long) processes will be natural or inevitable under the circumstances.”
“Whatever the case may be, drawing attention to these realities would surely be useful to the faithful, at least in terms of helping calibrate their expectations about what outcomes and timelines are realistic, when they raise pastoral concerns that do not necessarily rise to the level of a grave failing or canonical delict.”
“These are important areas of growth to consider,” Quinan added, “because failure to convey clear expectations can leave the faithful demoralized and disillusioned with the competence and effectiveness of institutional leadership – raising their voice about pastoral failings with a hope that diocesan leadership will take swift action in at least some small way, only to discover that this is not at all the case.
“Even worse, there could begin to be a risk that the faithful are disincentivized from speaking their concerns at all – out of a belief that nothing will realistically happen in the long run, even if they do muster the courage to raise their voices to the bishop, because they've heard all about how others who had even worse experiences with their pastors were left feeling dissatisfied or neglected.”
“I understand her frustration”
The archdiocese referred The Pillar’s questions on the situation to Tim O’Malley, the former judge who is now in charge of archdiocesan safe environment programs.
O’Malley said the case was difficult because Clare’s allegation, that Dufner ignored what she told him, couldn’t be proved definitively, and Dufner offered a completely different account. That kind of situation does not lead to a quick resolution, or one that will be satisfactory to all parties.
“Sometimes certain situations are not crisp or as clear as others, and that makes knowing how to proceed difficult,” O’Malley said.
“In this office, we don’t make decisions based on gut feelings. We have to go with the facts. And that means facts that are demonstrable and well-founded."
As to the long delays in resolving the situation, “I understand her frustration,” O’Malley told The Pillar.
"It should not have taken as long as it did." O’Malley said the pandemic was a factor, but not the only one, although he did not elaborate on what else causes delays.
But “Clare is sincere, courageous, detailed and very reasonable. She has been exceptionally patient as we follow through with our process to reach a fair outcome,” he told The Pillar.
O’Malley emphasized that the archdiocese has a proven track record of handling abuse allegations, but he also told The Pillar that he and his staff are open to finding ways to improve.
“Archdiocesan staff will continue to take allegations of abuse seriously, work closely with all who claim they have been mistreated by anyone in the Church to get the help they need, and we will continue to urge them to contact law enforcement first. As we have proven, we also continue to work closely with law enforcement by allowing them to investigate allegations first and only begin our own investigations when cleared to do so. We are blessed with a highly-talented and experienced Ministerial Review Board which makes evidence-based recommendations to Archbishop Hebda and me regarding a clergy member’s fitness for ministry,” he told The Pillar.
It was in 2001 that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published new policies aimed at ensuring allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors were handled in Rome by a clear, deliberate, and just process.
The next year, 2002, the U.S. bishops’ conference published their own norms. And in 2019, in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, Pope Francis published another policy document, this one to address what should happen when bishops don’t address clerical sexual abuse, or cover it up.
Victims’ advocates and safe environment specialists say those policies have made a difference in the Church’s life. But they also say there are issues still unaddressed by the Church’s policies, and that the Church’s culture still tends often toward defensiveness, institutional self-preservation, and clericalism, especially when it deals with the victims of sexual abuse.
Some victims’ advocates point out that no matter what policies are developed, there will always be some tension as Church leaders work with sexual abuse victims, especially because diocesan leaders often have dual obligations: one the hand caring for those who say they’ve been abused, and on the other hand overseeing internal legal processes that depend on proofs and testimony, and that don’t often end with satisfying results.
That tension often leaves victims feeling frustrated and unheard. It can also leave diocesan leaders flummoxed: How can they ensure a just process for their priests, and at the same time try to help victim-survivors feel heard, understood, and taken seriously? The tension is compounded when proofs to support an allegation are scant.
Sara Larson is the executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a Wisconsin organization that aims to address the “full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church” and to promote healing in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the group is based.
Larson told The Pillar that it’s a mistake to frame difficult cases like Friis’ as a “balance” between due process, on the one hand, and caring for victims on the other.
“I would instead say that we have a call from our Lord to love every human being as a beloved daughter or son of God. A victim’s right to be heard and believed and a priest’s right to due process when accused, both flow from our Catholic belief in the dignity of the human person - every human person. These rights are not mutually exclusive. I believe we need to stop thinking about victims and priests as opposing forces,” Larson said.
“Victims want priests to have due process so that justice can be served; good priests want the Church to believe and support victims so that the Body of Christ can move toward healing.”
“Almost every survivor I have spoken to feels that their diocese treated them more like an adversary or liability than a human being, and this includes many survivors from various areas of the country who have made reports in the past few years. The reality is that updated policies and procedures can only take us so far; what most needs to change is human hearts. When every person on the diocesan staff sees a victim first and foremost as a beloved son or daughter of God, then things will really change.”
Larson added that even when an allegation leads to a disappointing result, the diocese has an obligation of care.
“The reality is that if a victim’s allegation is not found credible or substantiated, that decision is going to be a source of great pain, no matter how the process was handled. But there is still a lot the Church can do to treat victims with respect and compassion.”
“There needs to be someone from the Church who can meet with a victim and offer them unconditional compassion and support through every step of the process, regardless of what is happening with their case. We know that the most important words for an abuse victim to hear are ‘I believe you’; there needs to be at least one person representing the Church who can accept a victim’s story without questions or objections, look them in the eye, and say these words to them,” Larson said.
“One survivor told me that it would be helpful if she had been reassured that God knows the truth, regardless of the results of the investigation. Another said that the most important thing is to offer a sincere apology, without any defensive explanation — ‘I’m sorry you were hurt. I know this must be painful’ — Of course, all of these statements could fall flat if the person conveying them has not already earned the trust of the victim through their consistent care and integrity.
“We can do better”
Clare Friis isn’t sure what will happen next at Epiphany, or with Fr. Dufner. She’s frustrated, but she says it’s out of her control. She says she’s lost trust in the leaders she once thought would protect her. But she hasn’t lost her faith.
“It's hell, and I think it's one of the worst forms of hell, because I am faithful to this Church and to this faith and they're supposed to be there to protect me. They're supposed to protect me, and to protect, like, the 15 year old [in danger]. But they weren't. And then even when they have the opportunity to be there, they still choose not to.”
2021 is the year of St. Joseph in the Catholic Church, and Friis consecrated herself to St. Joseph a few months ago. In fact, she watched online a Mass that consecrated the entire Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to St. Joseph.
“And I saw [Archbishop Hebda] incensing the altar. And I was just filled with so much anger. I had to turn it off, which was so hard for me. There’s no trust whatsoever.”
“I don’t want to sue anyone. That’s not what I want out of this. I just don’t want there to be another Clare.”
Her message to the archdiocese: don’t delay, be clear about expectations, be proactive about safe environments and sexual assault.
“Just do something. Just do something and do it faster. If you really care about victim survivors, then you will move on this quickly. And it won't be something that is over a year's process to get, not even a result, but just a half-answer.”
“There just seems not to be any plan for how to handle these things,” she said. “I just don’t think enough has been learned. If we don’t address that head on, we’re going to be in a far worse place in the future.”
“I don’t want that. We just — we can do better. And I think we have to.”
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