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Former Grand Forks chaplain accused of child sexual abuse

DULUTH -- A Catholic missionary order on Tuesday released the names of seven former Minnesota priests who have been accused of child sexual abuse -- a list that includes five clergymen who worked within the Diocese of Duluth. The list, made publi...



DULUTH -- A Catholic missionary order on Tuesday released the names of seven former Minnesota priests who have been accused of child sexual abuse -- a list that includes five clergymen who worked within the Diocese of Duluth.

The list, made public through a settlement agreement between the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and an abuse victim, includes previously unreported priests who worked at parishes throughout the county, including in Duluth, Superior, International Falls and Northome.

All seven were members of the Oblates, and five worked within the Diocese of Duluth at some point: James Vincent Fitzgerald, Michael Charland, Robert J. Reitmeier, Thomas Meyer and Paul Kabat who worked in Grand Forks from 1969 to 1970.


Several of the accused priests worked with children, including Reitmeier, who was principal at St. Jean's School in Duluth, and Charland, who led "Teens Encounter Christ" programs in Superior and International Falls.

Only Fitzgerald, who was the subject of the lawsuit that prompted the release of the names, was previously included on the Duluth diocese's list of credibly accused priests.

"We've conducted an exhaustive review of diocese files and there are, to my knowledge, no allegations of sexual abuse of minors that have been raised regarding any of the five, other than Fitzgerald," said Susan Gaertner, an attorney for the diocese. "Simply put, the other four are essentially news to us."

Jeff Anderson, who leads a St. Paul law firm dedicated to child sexual abuse cases, announced the names in a press conference Tuesday.

Anderson said a settlement was reached with the Oblates in April in an ongoing lawsuit filed in Ramsey County. The dioceses of Duluth and New Ulm are also named in the suit, filed by an anonymous person known in court documents as "Doe 30," and have not settled.

Anderson said the settlement also requires the Oblates to produce files on each accused priest. However, those files and the details of the accusations against each priest were not immediately released.

"We are deeply grateful to Doe 30 for demanding and requiring that there be a disclosure and an exposure both of these names and these files yet to come," Anderson said.

The Oblates, in a statement, said they agreed to the settlement "because transparency and a safe environment for minors who are involved in church activities were of deep concern to Doe 30 and are of deep concern to us as well."


The Oblates said they were working with victims' attorneys, civil authorities and church leaders to further develop abuse protocols.

"The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate abhor and condemn all abuse and exploitation of minors and have been working hard over the past decade to accomplish the goals and values that are reflected in the Doe 30 settlement," the statement read in part.

The Oblates are a worldwide missionary order with 4,440 members working in five continents, according to the group's website. The missionary order focuses on ministering to the poor and going where its priests are most needed.

Anderson noted that the accused priests worked often in Native American communities, particularly in South Dakota and northern Minnesota. But all appointments at local parishes were subject to approval by the local bishop or archbishop, Anderson said.



At the press conference in St. Paul, attorneys called for the Duluth and New Ulm dioceses to work toward similar settlements that require the release of documents -- a provision that diocese officials have previously rejected.

"It's disturbing that they have refused to come clean and be forthcoming in the way the Oblates were required to and have now chosen to," he said.


Gaertner said she was not aware of the precise terms of the settlement with the Oblates and therefore could not comment directly on the prospects of a similar agreement with the Duluth diocese.

Gaertner stressed that Duluth has already released a full list of its credibly accused priests in December 2013 and said officials were cooperating with victims' attorneys in several ongoing lawsuits.

"In this case and others, we've been turning over files that are relevant to the litigation process," she said, "and that will continue."

The Doe 30 case is scheduled to go to trial in Ramsey County in October. Separately, the Diocese of Duluth is named in three St. Louis County lawsuits filed by alleged abuse victims.

The suits were brought under Minnesota's so-called "Child Victims Act," a law that opened a three-year window for victims of decades-old abuse to file claims, eliminating the statute of limitations.

The accused priests named Tuesday are:

  •  Michael Charland, who worked as a spiritual director for the Teens Encounter Christ program through the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the 1970s. He also staffed programs in Superior and International Falls.
  •  James Vincent Fitzgerald, a previously reported priest, who worked at parishes in Northome, Bigfork, Effie, Orr and Squaw Lake between 1957 and 1983.
  •  Paul Kabat, who worked in Northome and International Falls from 1966-68.
  •  Thomas Meyer, a parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in International Falls from 1999 to 2007.
  •  Robert Reitmeier, who served as a principal at St. Jean's School and a co-pastor at St. Jean's Parish and West End Catholic Parish in Duluth in the 1970s.
  •  Orville Lawrence Munie, who spent most of his career in the Upper Midwest, but did not have any apparent ties to the Diocese of Duluth.
  •  Emil Twardochleb, who worked in Rochester, Minn., in the 1970s, but did not have any reported connection to the Diocese of Duluth.


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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