BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem says that after a lengthy investigation, criminal charges won't be filed against any priests or other Catholic officials accused of sexually abusing children in the state.

The Bureau of Criminal Investigation found that two living priests could have faced criminal charges for allegedly abusing children. However, the statute of limitations has run out, Stenehjem said Monday, Jan. 4.

“I regret it will not be possible to have these men face their victims at a trial and face the potential consequences, but I hope it brings a measure of comfort to the victims that these crimes were eventually investigated,” Stenehjem said in a statement.

Stenehjem’s BCI spent 18 months reviewing files from the Fargo and Bismarck dioceses to determine whether criminal charges could be brought. Saturday, Jan. 2, marked the one-year anniversary of the two dioceses releasing their lists of 53 priests and other religious members who faced substantiated allegations of child sex abuse.

The lists do not disclose details of the alleged acts, including dates. They also don't say where the priests served.

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Ted Becker of Minnesota expressed disgust over the news that no charges can be pressed against the deceased or living priests who were investigated. Becker told The Forum he was sexually abused by the Rev. Victor Heinen, a priest on the Bismarck Diocese list, in the 1940s. Heinen died in 1953.

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"They knew that if they kept putting things off, eventually the statute of limitations would expire," Becker said of Catholic officials. "That's not what a responsible person, much less a responsible religious person, should do."

Stenehjem said the dioceses cooperated with the BCI by providing their records to investigators, including those of priests not named on the lists. Agents also interviewed several victims and pursued new leads, the attorney general said.

The BCI discovered it had enough probable cause to bring charges against two clergy members: the Revs. Norman Dukart of Dickinson and Odo Muggli, who is an Order of Saint Benedict priest at Assumption Abbey in Richardton.

Since the allegations date back to the 1970s, criminal charges cannot be pursued, despite a 2019 North Dakota law that extended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse from 10 to 21 years. Stenehjem noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a case cannot be revived once the statute of limitations expires.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Executive Director Zach Hiner said the investigation demonstrates “how the Church’s pattern of shuffling abusive priests and keeping the public in the dark about allegations has helped perpetrators evade justice and avoid criminal penalties."

"We can only hope that the survivors of these abusers will be able to pursue a civil trial now that criminal court is closed to them," Hiner said in a statement.

The priests

The Rev. John Owens was under investigation by Stenehjem's office but died in October. He was a priest in Bismarck from 1960 through 1999 and a disc jockey before moving to his last known address of Forest Lake, Minn., according to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. That's where he lived a life of atonement, the Bismarck Tribune previously reported.

Owens was removed from ministry in 2005.

Dukart was defrocked in 2002. Little information has been released about him, but the misconduct allegedly involved two children, the Williston Herald previously reported.

Muggli was not on the Bismarck Diocese’s list released a year ago, though Dukart and Owens were. Muggli is not under the jurisdiction of the Bismarck Diocese, Stenehjem said. The priest's order is part of the American-Cassinese Congregation, a Catholic association of Benedictine monasteries.

Muggli is still considered a priest within the Assumption Abbey community but is not involved in ministry work, Abbot Daniel Maloney told The Forum.

Maloney declined to discuss the details of Muggli's case, saying they were "dealing with something from many years ago." Maloney said he felt the investigation was objective and well done.

The Forum asked if Muggli would like to comment on the report, but Maloney said he doubted that. Attempts to reach Dukart were unsuccessful.

Referring to Muggli, Hiner of the survivors network said the BCI uncovered the "identification of a hidden abuser."

Hiner called on Stenehjem’s office and the dioceses to release more information on Dukart, Muggli and Owens, including work histories and details of the alleged abuse.

In the report released Monday, Stenehjem did not disclose details on the alleged actions of the three men. The Bismarck Diocese declined to comment on Stenehjem's report.

No priests in the Fargo Diocese were named as potential defendants. In a response to questions from The Forum, the Fargo Diocese said it appreciated the BCI investigators’ efforts to review past allegations.

“The Attorney General’s findings are consistent with our own internal review,” diocese spokesman Paul Braun said in a statement.

When asked if the attorney general's office is investigating allegations that the dioceses protected priests, BCI spokeswoman Liz Brocker said, "failure to report child abuse is a misdemeanor," but the statute of limitations for that crime is two years.

"The allegations were all reported more than 2 years ago," she said, not elaborating, but seeming to suggest that no one in the dioceses will face criminal charges if they covered up allegations of sexual abuse involving minors.

Braun said the diocese has followed reporting requirements and "will continue to do so."

Victims are asked to contact the attorney general’s office at ndag@nd.gov or 800-472-2185 to report sex abuse by a clergy member.

Forum reporter C.S. Hagen contributed to this article.