HIBBING — The mother with a set of daughters both accusing a former Hibbing priest of sexual misconduct took the stand Thursday during trial day two in St. Louis County District Court in Hibbing.
Brian M. Lederer, 30, is facing four counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree.
Three of the juvenile accusers testified Wednesday, recounting how Lederer touched them inappropriately on more than one occasion.
He is accused of snapping bras while massaging shoulders, grabbing two of the girls’ breasts, touching one in the buttocks and lifting another by her groin area.
The incidents took place during the 2014-2015 school year after school hours at Assumption School. One incident took place in a residence, and other actions occurred on a school bus. Lederer was arrested and charged on May 7, 2015.
The mother worked daily in the school and often volunteered there for events and field trips. She said she and the family immediately friended Lederer when he first arrived in 2012 and quickly became close to him. The family would often invite him to birthday parties, their sporting events and over to their residence to play games.
“My kids were used to seeing him every day,” she said. “They considered him like a big brother or an uncle.”
She said she also grew tight with him.
“He was a very close friend, a confidant,” she said. “He’s someone I trusted and invited into my family.”
Lederer helped her through a tough, personal issue with her father, she said. Daily texting was also common.
But all that changed around May 3, 2015, when her daughters charged that Lederer had sexually touched them.
“I felt hurt. I didn’t understand. I wished it wasn’t true,” she said upon hearing the accusations. “I don’t know. I felt like this was not real.”
She likened it to an out of body experience, and said she felt guilty for having invited Lederer into the family.
The girls were uncontrollably sobbing when they told her, especially the eldest who claims Lederer touched her in the groin area while playing checkers at their house just a day prior. She is expected to testify today.
“I just wanted to hold them, to comfort them,” she said.
Prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich had the mother speak in depth as to the routines in the classroom after school hours and the patrol parties she was present for. She was questioned whether she had witnessed any questionable behavior by Lederer in the classroom, to which she described an incident during which she saw him hit one of her daughters in the buttocks.
She chalked it up to being an accident, and felt bad for thinking “unChristianly,” she said. She kept it quiet, opting not to speak about it with her daughter.
The mother was asked to speak about the day of the checker game at their residence. She testified that she did not see any inappropriate actions by Lederer and that there was no change in demeanor in the children — despite one now contends that Lederer touched her at that setting.
She also stated that law enforcement had become involved prior to them making a decision on whether to confront Lederer or to go to police. A friend of one of the daughters had told a teacher, who is mandated to report such accusations.
Hibbing Police Investigator Jeff Adamich testified as to how the department handled the initial complaint along with social services. Given Lederer’s access to his accusers, children at the school, parishioners at the church and the community in general, investigators felt it best to arrest Lederer to maintain public safety.
Adamich was also on a search warrant of Lederer’s residence in the rectory, during which his cell phone was seized. The prosecution showed the jury a photo and a video from the phone that were taken during the checkers games.
On cross-examination, Defense Attorney Peter Wold questioned how common it was for her and Lederer to text and how it was received by family members — especially the eldest daughter and her husband.
Wold had the mother describe the classroom and checker game scene, suggesting it would be brazen for someone to do something with others in the room.
He also questioned why they had not just “called their good friend” Lederer about the girls’ accusations.
Vlatkovich asked the mother whether she thought he daughters were romantically infatuated with Lederer, to which she answered no. She replied the same when he asked if she felt any romantic or sexual intent from Lederer.
When asked what she thinks of Lederer now, she said she hurts.
“I have all of the emotions — hurt, angry, sad,” she said. “ … I’m having a hard time looking at him right now.”
Paula Kangas, a teacher at Assumption, also testified about Lederer’s actions around students at school. She said she had concerns about the contact — specifically hugging and phone playing — he had with students and how it could be misconstrued. She also stated that she had expressed those concerns to Lederer.
Testimony by state witnesses continues today.