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Vicar general resigns from diocese

6-23-2012 Catholic procession.JPG
The Rev. Richard Colletti, vicar general of the Diocese of Winona, carries a monstrance as about 500 Catholics walk down Center Street from the Church of St. John the Evangelist to the Mayo Civic Center on June 23, 2012. The procession was part of a two-day evangelization event called "Turning our Gaze to Christ."
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WINONA — The second-highest ranking official at the Catholic Diocese of Winona resigned Wednesday after the Post-Bulletin discovered that he admitted under oath in the early 1990s that he had a sexual relationship with a college freshman whom he was counseling.

The relationship lasted for more than a year, according to court documents obtained by the Post-Bulletin, and included a pregnancy scare.

The Rev. Msgr. Richard Colletti, 63, who since 2011 had been vicar general of the diocese that serves the 20 southern counties of Minnesota, also resigned as chancellor , the chief record keeper for the diocese. The resignations were effective immediately.

Bishop John Quinn said Wednesday night that had Colletti not offered his resignation, "it would have been within my role to (terminate him). I would have needed more time to discuss all of that with him, but before I even began that discussion, Monsignor informed me that he wished to resign."

The Post-Bulletin obtained hundreds of pages of court documents, including Colletti's testimony taken during a personal injury lawsuit filed by the victim in 1991. The case was dismissed with prejudice in January 1994 by Judge Margaret Shaw Johnson in Winona County District Court.

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Though terms of the dismissal were not available, it likely means a financial settlement of some sort, said Patrick Wall, an advocate for victims of clergy abuse who works for Jeff Anderson & Associates law firm in St. Paul.

The terms of the settlement are confidential, strictly limiting what can be discussed.

Colletti 'regrets' relationship

Quinn, who came to Winona in 2008 and was appointed bishop in 2009, was not involved in the lawsuit, but the terms of the settlement prevent him from commenting on any aspect of the case, said Tom Braun, an attorney at Restovich Braun & Associates law firm, which represents the diocese.

Braun was with Quinn during the interview with the Post-Bulletin Wednesday evening.

"We'd like to have a discussion about the facts of this case," Braun said, "but the diocese has agreed not to discuss the details of this case in any way. The diocese has to continue to honor that obligation."

That includes what Quinn did or didn't know about the case before phone calls Wednesday from the Post-Bulletin.

"We cannot disclose any facts attendant to this case," Braun said. "Disclosing what he knows now or what he knew initially is disclosing facts, so we can't get into those details."

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The bishop also couldn't comment about what will become of Colletti — including the possibility of laicization , Braun said, other than "it's fair to say that his current positions are under review."

The confidentiality agreement, Braun continued, "causes some difficulty in being transparent here, which is what Bishop is committed to. If we could go back in time and do things differently, the confidentiality agreement would not be part of this settlement, so we could have a discussion about this."

Quinn said Colletti "does not want to cause any pain or further suffering for anyone who was involved in this, especially (the victim), and doesn't want to cause any further pain for the Catholics here in our diocese, nor for the parishioners."

Colletti "resigned out of love for the church," Quinn said, "and regrets this relationship, but he has also as a priest tried to serve with love and with care, and other than this incident, I'm not aware of anything else in his background, just that he's tried his best to serve God's people."

Judge declined to seal files

Among the admissions revealed in the lawsuit, Colletti said he found himself doing "crazy things, like asking her to marry me" after a pregnancy scare, and flying to Rome for five days when the victim spent a semester in Europe, the court documents say.

The woman sought in excess of $50,000 in damages, accusing Colletti — and by extension, the Diocese of Winona , the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Rochester and Saint Mary's University in Winona — of battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.

Depositions and copies of diocesan records, including letters from Colletti's personnel file, indicate former Bishop John Vlazny and the Rev. Gerald Mahon — rector at Immaculate Heart Seminary at the time and now pastor at Church of St. John the Evangelist in Rochester — knew about the sexual contact.

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In 1989, the records say, Colletti underwent treatment for alcoholism, co-dependency and sexual addiction.

The woman eventually finished college, but became "depressed and suicidal." A source close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity said the woman remains "troubled" psychologically to this day, unable to work or maintain relationships.

The victim, who is in her late 40s and now lives in another state, couldn't be reached for comment.

Though all parties involved in the lawsuit, plaintiff and defendants alike, filed motions to have the case files sealed, Judge Johnson refused to do so, saying in her ruling that while both sides provided their own reasons to keep "any information hidden from the public eye ... the reasons given do not outweigh the fundamental interests in openness and public accessibility to our court proceedings."

Efforts to reach Johnson, now retired, were unsuccessful.

The woman's story

The victim originally visited Colletti, who was serving as chaplain and director of campus ministry for Saint Mary's, at the beginning of her freshman year, court documents say. She was 18 and seeking counseling for depression.

Colletti had been there for about a year.

The appointments were initially in his office, during school hours, but became longer and more informal. Colletti eventually scheduled appointments in the evening hours, first in his office, then at his apartment on the second floor of St. Edward's Hall.

Colletti "always wanted to give me a hug, and each one seemed to last longer," the woman said in a court document, "and then he'd ask me to slow dance with him."

As winter approached that year, Colletti called the victim often, telling her he felt depressed, or that he felt like drinking again, the records say. It was during that time that the relationship became sexual, with the priest "holding me tighter ... and promising that I could leave in just a little while," the woman said.

The meetings continued almost every night until May, with Colletti allegedly apologizing frequently and promising to stop.

About a month later, the victim thought she was pregnant, the documents say. When she told Colletti, he asked her to marry him, reportedly saying there were lots of priests with kids around, but the kids just don't know who their dads are.

The woman avoided Colletti all summer before leaving for Europe at the beginning of her sophomore year. Colletti wrote to the victim, telling her he would be in Rome for Christmas and he wanted to see her. During his visit, "he pinned me down on the bed and laughed," the victim said, "and he would not get off me."

She left Colletti at that hotel and took a train to Austria.

The woman returned to Winona for the second semester, and Colletti continued to "want to get together with me and told me he loved me and wanted to marry me."

Served in Rochester, Mankato

About that time, Mahon referred Colletti for a psychological evaluation.

Colletti had told Mahon about the relationship eight months earlier, the records show, and again after he returned from Rome.

Colletti was sent that spring to the Guest House treatment center in Rochester for treatment of his alcoholism, the papers say, and he didn't return to Winona. He was transferred to St. John's Parish in Rochester.

Mahon said Wednesday that he remembered the Colletti case, but didn't remember being deposed or being involved in the lawsuit, though he was vicar general at the time and multiple court documents refer to his involvement.

Six months later after Colletti went to Rochester, the woman saw him at a wedding. Colletti claimed to have something for her in his car, "but he didn't; he lied, and I got away from him," she said. The ruse sent her to Vlazny's office to tell him about Colletti, "but the bishop just preached about forgiveness and said that I was a good Catholic," the court documents say.

Colletti became pastor at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Mankato in 1996 and served until 2008, when he returned to Winona.

Because she was 18, the victim in the case did not qualify to sue under the Minnesota Child Victims Act of 2013, which lifted for three years the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. On May 26, the day after the act expired, the Winona diocese said that 119 victims and survivors had made claims against it.

The statement reads, in part, "The Catholic Diocese of Winona continues to encourage anyone who has suffered sexual abuse or exploitation by a priest or anyone else involved in Church ministry immediately to report such misconduct to local law enforcement, regardless of when the misconduct occurred."

Braun reiterated that point, but said "this matter was thoroughly investigated, went through a long process with the court.

"It's hard to know why (the victim) and her attorneys chose not to (go to law enforcement), but what I can say is that, because of the confidentiality agreement," diocese officials will not take their own advice, he said.

Does that mean they won't speak to law enforcement about Colletti's actions?

"The Diocese of Winona in the agreement agreed not to make any statements to any other persons aside from those who are listed in the agreement," Braun said. "Of course the diocese would cooperate with any kind of law enforcement investigation, but the settlement agreement would have to be produced and we'd have to discuss what disclosures could be made under the terms of the agreement with the plaintiff."

Mahon also said he wouldn't go to law enforcement.

There have been a lot of statements that have come from the diocese, Braun said, "acknowledging that there's a great sadness with how things have been handled in the past ... I understand there's frustration in how things have happened in the past, and what we're trying to do is move forward in a way that protects children and is cognizant of the past."

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