Priest vehemently denies touching girls at Catholic school

HIBBING, Minn. -- A Hibbing priest accused of sexually abusing four girls testified Friday that the girls' recollections were wrong and that he never touched them with sexual intent. The Rev. Brian Michael Lederer said he's felt "really confused"...

HIBBING, Minn. -- A Hibbing priest accused of sexually abusing four girls testified Friday that the girls’ recollections were wrong and that he never touched them with sexual intent.

The Rev. Brian Michael Lederer said he’s felt “really confused” and “overwhelmed” by the allegations that he inappropriately touched the girls. He’s been trying to understand the “mind-boggling” situation and wants to believe that there isn’t a malicious intent behind the allegations, he said.

“Did you ever touch those girls with sexual intent?” Lederer’s defense attorney Peter Wold asked. Lederer replied, “No, I did not. I would never do that.”

Lederer is charged with four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. The most serious charges against Lederer carry a potential penalty of up to 25 years in prison.

Lederer was arrested on the charges in May 2015. He was placed on administrative leave by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth pending the outcome of the legal process.

For about an hour in State District Court in Hibbing on Friday, Lederer, 30, recalled his life, from his decision to enter the priesthood while attending the University of Minnesota Duluth to his work during his time at Blessed Sacrament Parish and in Hibbing. About a dozen of his family members and congregants filled the courtroom during his testimony, praying together outside the courtroom during a break in the proceedings Friday afternoon.

Lederer was the only witness called by the defense; the prosecution concluded its case Friday morning after more than two days of witness testimony. Closing statements are scheduled for Monday morning, followed by jury deliberations.

The girls alleging that Lederer inappropriately touched them were between 10 years old and 13 years old at the time of his arrest.

Wold went through the girls’ allegations one-by-one during the questioning, asking Lederer if he touched the girls in the way they said he did. Lederer repeatedly answered that he didn’t sexually touch the girls, although at times he said he didn’t remember the specific incident Wold was asking about. During his attorney’s questioning, Lederer also used a classroom desk brought into the courtroom to show how he would position himself next to a student while helping them with their work.

A few of the touches may have happened accidentally, he said, and not because he had a sexual intent to do so. On the allegation that he touched a girl’s backside on the school playground’s glider, he said he would give students a push when they asked for it on the swings or glider. He rejected the characterization that he massaged a girl’s shoulders, explaining that he would sometimes put a hand on a student’s shoulder and give a quick squeeze as a way to say hello.

Lederer acknowledged in his testimony that Assumption’s principal spoke to him about his boundaries with students after teachers at the school raised concerns about Lederer’s interactions with the students, specifically his hugging of students.

He said he doesn’t want to push children away when they run up to hug him. He pointed out that some Catholic parishioners have stories about nuns using rulers to hit them and priests hurting them, and some people have left the Catholic Church because of the way the clergy treated them.

“I didn’t want these kids to think of me as a strict priest,” he said.

Assumption’s principal suggested that Lederer give high-fives to students and limit his hugging of students, the priest testified. Lederer said the situation seemed better when he had a follow-up meeting with the principal a month later. He added that he always ensures that he is never alone in a room with a child.

Lederer also testified that the mother of two of the alleged victims was one of his best friends in Hibbing and they would often text each other. Her older daughter, who Lederer described as “competitive,” would ask why he was texting her mother and said he didn’t have to text her mother so much, Lederer testified. At one point the girl texted him using her mother’s phone, he said, adding that he didn’t think it was anything more than a typical middle-school girl’s crush.

During his cross-examination, St. Louis County prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich noted that a photo of one of the four alleged victims wearing a swimsuit was found on Lederer’s phone.

“How many photos of little girls do you have on your phone?” Vlatkovich asked. Lederer explained that the photo was taken during a field trip to Itasca State Park and that he took the photo to text it to the girl’s mother because the girl asked him to do so.

Sixth Judicial District Judge David Ackerson previously denied a defense motion to dismiss the felony charges against Lederer, concluding that a jury should decide whether Lederer is guilty.

Authorities also charged Lederer with possession of child pornography after recovering images of suspected child pornography from his computer, but Ackerson in December granted a motion to sever that count from the case, finding that it was not part of the “single behavioral incident.”