by Dennis Dalman
For the fourth time in the past two months, another list of Catholic clergy who had been the subject of sexual-abuse charges has been released – this time by the Diocese of St. Cloud under the new leadership of Bishop Donald Kettler.
The list was released to media Jan. 3. Previous lists of offending priests or monks were released by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Diocese, the Duluth Diocese and St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville. More lists are expected to be released by other dioceses in the coming weeks.
Those places released the lists after requests by the Twin Cities law firm of Jeff Anderson, who is widely known as a legal expert in cases involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests against boys and, in some cases, girls. In fact, on Jan. 2, Anderson and one of his clients, Robert Ethen, who lives in Stearns County, held a press conference in the Waite Park law office of Mike Bryant, who also represents clients claiming abuse by clergy.
One reason for the recent increase of lawsuits against dioceses and clergy is that last year the Minnesota Legislature extended the statute of limitation on cases in which children were allegedly sexually abused, meaning that now, even many years after abuse, a lawsuit can be initiated against the alleged perpetrators or those who allegedly covered up their crimes.
The St. Cloud Diocese list contains 33 names of priests who have had “likely claims” filed against them in the past. Twenty-one of the priests mentioned on the list are now deceased. The men served in dozens of parishes throughout the St. Cloud Diocese, including St. Joseph and in one case, St. Francis Xavier Church in Sartell. That priest, now deceased, was Fr. Allen Speiser.
Bishop Kettler, who was ordained as new bishop for the St. Cloud Diocese, said he began reviewing all kinds of documents in the diocese right after his installation in November. Those documents, he added, included those outlining allegations of sexual abuse made against priests throughout the years. Kettler had served in Fairbanks, Alaska since 2002 before coming to St. Cloud.
In the Robert Ethen lawsuit, it alleges a boy (not at that time Ethen) suffered abuse in 1964 at the hands of a priest, Fr. James A. Thoennes, at St. Anthony’s in St. Cloud. The St. Cloud Diocese is named as the defendant in that lawsuit, which alleges diocesan officials, including at least one bishop, kept allegations of sexual abuse from law authorities and the public.
The lawsuit states, “Civil legal authorities were not contacted about the report, and upon information and belief the boy who reported the abuse was severely punished by an agent of the Diocese.”
Later, after authorities knew of the allegation of abuse of a boy by Thoennes, they allowed him in 1965 to accompany Ethen, then a St. Anthony student, for an overnight trip to Thoennes’ mother’s home in Sauk Centre. Ethen’s parents were unaware of the previous complaint against Thoennes and were not told anything about it. Thus, they allowed their son to travel with the priest. During that trip, the lawsuit alleges, Thoennes sexually abused Ethen.
The suit also claims Thoennes was later accused of touching the genitals of Vietnamese refugee boys living in his home.
When then-Bishop George Speltz and other diocesan officials learned of the allegations, the diocese ordered Thoennes to go to chemical-dependency treatment and later to sex-offender counseling. He was prohibited from having contact with youth living or staying with him at any time. The suit accuses Speltz of keeping allegations of sexual conduct of minors by Thoennes from authorities in Otter Tail County.
In 1993, there were more allegations of sexual abuse. A man claimed he had been repeatedly sexually abused by Thoennes in the 1960s when he, the boy, was a student and altar boy at St. Anthony’s.
In 1997, then-Bishop John F. Kinney informed Thoennes he could no longer serve in public ministry in the diocese.
Thoennes has served at St. Anthony’s, St. Mary’s in Melrose, St. Joseph in Waite Park. St. John’s in Foley, St. Anne’s in Kimball, Sacred Heart in Dent, St. Leonard’s in Pelican Rapids, St. Joseph in Bertha, St. Edward’s in Henning and St. Mary’s Villa in Pierz. According to the list released by the St. Cloud Diocese, Thoennes is currently living in St. Cloud.
The crux of the Ethen lawsuit against the diocese is this: “Despite multiple reports of sexual abuse of minors spanning Thoennes’ career, Defendant (St. Cloud Diocese) failed to inform law enforcement authorities or the public that he had sexually abused minor children. As a direct result, Thoennes avoided criminal investigation and prosecution and continued to sexually abuse minors.”
The Ethen lawsuit calls for a jury trial.