Observations from a Diocesan Ombudsperson

Last night, attorney and Archdiocesan ombudsperson Tom Johnson spoke at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Minneapolis. As ombudsperson, Johnson works independently to receive reports of clerical sexual abuse and helps counsel survivors on their options going forward. He is not supervised by the Archdiocese, and all of his interactions with survivors are free and confidential.

Johnson assumed his role after a joint appointment by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, an arrangement established by a 2015 legal settlement. Since January of 2018, Johnson has served in this role as a resource for abuse survivors and those who may be concerned about a situation in a parish or school. Usually, survivors contact him by phone (he can be reached directly at 612-632-3207 or via email at thomas.johnson@gpmlaw.com), and he requests an in-person meeting as he hears the survivor's story and helps to work through his or her various options.

As part of the event at Our Lady of Lourdes, Johnson drew from his experiences as ombudsperson and provided observations, areas for improvement, and a few recommendations for what the Catholic laity can do to respond to the clerical abuse crises.

Some observations:

First, Johnson pointed out that acts of clerical sexual abuse cause such harm that they result in, for nearly every victim, lifelong damage to their well-being. Johnson drew upon a recent statement by Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who said that clerical sexual abuse is the worst kind of abuse because it is done in the name of God and often cuts its victims off from God. Johnson said, "They become the missing people in the pews."

Second, he said that what is needed in his Archdiocese is a "healing culture." He said that, currently, victims are not central to Archdiocesan responses to these questions. He said that the processes for responding to clerical sexual abuse have gotten much better but need continued improvement. He spoke positively about the fact that abuse prevention and reporting training is now universal and enforced, but said that this training could use development as well. He also said that The Catholic Spirit, the Archdiocese's independent paper, has had extensive coverage of these issues but has not paid sufficient attention to victims. Victims require greater focus.

Areas for Improvement

Johnson pointed out three areas for improvement. First, he stressed again that victims need to be more central. In the past, the focus has been on the institution of the Church and the well-being of the clergy. He called for more focus on victims.

Second, he pointed out that schools are not armed with knowledge about the difference between good and bad touch. He said that children should be taught about how to develop and trust their instincts about touch, and also about how to discuss appropriate touch with others.

Third, Johnson pointed out that there is no process for addressing abuse and cover-ups by bishops. He said that we need investigations with objectivity, integrity, and accountability. Looking at his own diocese, he stated, "The investigation into Archbishop Nienstedt remains a ticking time bomb." He also said of the 2014 Nienstedt investigation: "Accusers weren't treated as victims. They were treated as enemies of the Church." This was a significant problem and still needs to be addressed.

What You Can Do

Finally, he provided advice on what the laity can do. First, he spoke positively about the letter recently sent by members of the Archdiocese with recommendations for change. He saw these and similar efforts as important steps in moving forward.

Second, he recommended making a commitment to talk with your priest about these issues. The parish priest "needs to make it clear that victims can come forward into his open arms of compassion." He also said that priests need to call upon the hierarchy for transparency and, in particular in his diocese, for an accounting and release of records from the Nienstedt investigation. They should also call for more lay inclusion in all aspects of responding to clerical sexual abuse.

Third, he recommended talking with family, friends, and parishioners about these issues. These issues need to be discussed and better understood. And we need to talk about these issues differently from how they have been discussed in the past. He said, "Victims want an acknowledgment that they have no fault in this."

Ultimately, he said that much of this change will fall upon the shoulders of today's young adult laity. He said, "Changing the culture of the Church is your cross to bear... I think you can do it. You have to do it."

If you have been a victim of clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, you can reach Mr. Tom Johnson directly at 612-632-3207 or via email at thomas.johnson@gpmlaw.com. Interactions with Mr. Johnson are free and confidential.

YArespond is a group of Catholic young adults based in the Twin Cities seeking informed and holistic ways to respond to the abuse crises in our Church. We focus on a fourfold response consisting of prayer, education, dialogue, and action. Currently, we are working on developing resources for parishes and ministries to host events and dialogues. Learn more: