Former priest Jerome Kern says fondling was confused for "Italian wrestling"


In the summer of 1969, word spread back to Father Jerome Kern that the parents of two boys who attended the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul were upset with him. The parishioners claimed that Kern had been rough-housing during a trip to Lake Nokomis Beach and slid his hand repeatedly into their kids' cut-off jeans.

The priest's response would later be described by church officials as "brazen," even downright "insensitive." Kern told the parents that he had merely engaged in a little game he picked overseas known as "Italian wrestling." The rules were simple and sound like something straight out of Satyricon: each man jostles while attempting to grasp at the other's genitals.

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This story and others like it emerged Tuesday out of the hundreds of pages of documents that are being released in anticipation of a civil lawsuit involving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis by crusading attorney Jeffrey Anderson.

In a taped deposition, also made public, Kern admits to having touched three boys. But he says no one in a position of authority ever reprimanded him, let alone told him that his actions were wrong, during the three decades in which allegations of sexual abuse followed him as he moved around the Twin Cities metro.

"He's going to be, when it's all said and done, one of the most prolific perpetrators in the archdiocese," says Mike Finnegan, one of the attorneys who deposed Kern. Church officials "kept putting him out there to the community as safe."

Indeed, the archdiocese responded in 1969 by reassigning Kern to Our Lady of Grace in Edina, where he allegedly abused 11 more children. He wound up next at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Minnetonka, and by 1982, Kern had been accused of abusing at least 20 children.

When the boys from Lake Nokomis Beach poked their heads back up in 1987, as adults, Vicar General Michael O'Connell sent Kern off for a psychological evaluation at a church-run clinic in New Mexico. A letter to the clinic reads in part: "Knowing what we know now about pedophilia and about how it is rarely a singular act, we would have some reason to question Fr. Kern's insistence that the event ... was a singular act."

O'Connell goes so far as to ask that Kern not be given a copy of this letter, because he suspects that Kern has not been completely honest about what happened on Lake Nokomis Beach back in 1969.

When reached for comment, Jim Accurso, a spokesman for the archdiocese, pointed back to Kern's testimony, saying the transcript spoke for itself.

Kern was removed from ministry in 2002, and his name appears on the list of credibly accused priests that the archdiocese released in December 2013.

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