HIBBING — The former Hibbing priest accused of criminal sexual misconduct took the stand Friday afternoon 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.
Defense Attorney Peter Wold began by asking Lederer if he knew the girls who are accusing him of the sexual criminal misconduct to which he confirmed.
Wold asked Lederer a series of questions relating to whether or not the accusations against him are truthful. Lederer denied all accusations.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Lederer said.
When questioned about snapping the girls’ bras, Lederer claimed he didn’t recall the specific incidents.
“I don’t remember that specific incident, but I would put my hand on students’ shoulders and say, ‘hey, how are you?’,” he said.
Lederer also denied purposely touching an accusers buttocks while pushing her on a swing.
“I may have touched her butt, but I had no sexual intent,” he said. “I was just trying to help.”
Lederer confirmed that he did lift an accuser up onto a shelf during a game of hide and seek, but said he did it to help the girl.
“I vaguely remember that a person hid there and it took a long time to find them so she asked me to lift her and I did,” he said. “I don’t remember touching her inappropriately. I think I grabbed her by her hips, but it was very high so if I touched something else that wasn’t my intent and that was an accident.”
Lederer denied ever touching an accuser’s breasts.
“I never touched the girl's breasts,” he said. “I did not intentionally touch or squeeze her breasts.”
Wold asked Lederer about his upbringing. Lederer said he was raised Catholic, but that church wasn’t a big part of his life until college.
“We were in Catholic faith,” he said of his family. “We didn’t really go to church much, maybe Christmas and Easter. It wasn’t a huge part of our lives.”
Lederer said that a car crash he and his brother were in, and the death of a close friend are what caused him to attend seminary school and become a priest.
“That was all really hard to deal with,” he said. “Then I saw ash on someone’s forehead and I can’t say why, but it made me think of God. At that point I was almost agnostic. I didn’t know what to believe, but that rekindled my faith.”
Leder said he did quit seminary school temporarily to pursue a love interest, but realized that his love for helping people with their faith was becoming unfair to his potential wife.
“I realized that I would always put someone’s faith ahead of her, and that’s not what marriage is supposed to be,” he said. “That’s when I realized I was called to priesthood and went back to seminary school.”
Prior to being assigned to Blessed Sacrament Church in Hibbing, Lederer said he participated in a 10-week internship at the church.
“I really liked Hibbing,” he said. “It reminded me of the small town I grew up in. The people were very laid back. I was happy to be here.”
During his time at Blessed Sacrament Church, Lederer began spending more time with Assumption School students after being asked to teach a computer class by his supervisor Father Gabriel Waweru.
“Part of my mission in priesthood was to take care of the school,” he said, noting that allowed Waweru to focus on administrative duties like maintaining the budget.
While working with the school, Lederer said it was common for him to hangout around the students.
“I liked to sit in at lunch for two reasons,” he said. “I didn’t have to bring a lunch, and I got to chat with the kids. It was always different kids.”
Lederer also confirmed that students would often run up to him after school to hug him.
“Kids would run up and say, ‘see you later Father Brian.’ Then I’d lean down and they’d hug me,” he said. “They’d also lean up against me, and I’d put my hand on their shoulder.”
Lederer said those actions did raise concerns about boundaries from teachers. He said he spoke with the principal about the incidents, and vowed to better handle the situations.
“I told him I’d work on it, maybe high fives or something,” he said. “It’s hard being a new priest and a kindergartner comes up to hug you. I’m not going to say ‘no’ and shove them away. I don’t want kids to think I’m some strict priest. I wouldn’t want them to be afraid to come talk to me. I wanted to be that regular guy.”
Lederer denied ever being alone with a student in a private place.
“I was always very careful not to be alone with children,” he said.
Wold questioned if there are any hiding places at Assumption School.
“Not really, no,” Lederer replied.
He also said he’d try to attend students’ sporting events when asked, but would only go to their homes if invited over by their parents.
“I became good friends with lots of the families,” he said.
Lederer did state that one of the accusers raised objection to him texting her mom.
“She said it a couple times. ‘You don’t have to text my mom everything,’” he said. “But we were just friends.”
The accuser does have a temper, and intends to say hurtful things when she’s upset, Leder said.
“She’s a very competitive girl,” he said. “She’s good at sports. She got a B once and got really mad. She likes to win. She likes to be the center of attention. I just thought it was normal kid stuff.”
Following a brief break, Prosecutor Jeff Vlatkovich asked Lederer a series of questions similar to the ones Wold asked.
Lederer reiterated that he was not guilty to any of the accusations.
Vlatkovich questioned a photo that Lederer took of one of the accusers in a swimsuit during a field trip. Lederer said the girl was having an issue with her braces so he took a photo and sent it to her mom.
Vlatkovich also asked if Lederer ever massage a student’s shoulders.
“I don’t remember ever squeezing someone’s shoulders like that,” he said.
Vlatkovich said Lederer is being accused of touching the crotch of one of the girls.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Lederer denied. “I did not cup a girl’s breast. I didn’t intentionally squish her bra. No, I didn’t snap any bras. I never did any of those things.”
Despite the accusations, Lederer said he still cares for the girls.
“I cared for them. I still care for them,” he said. “I’d never do anything to hurt them.”
Lederer said he’s got mixed emotions about the accusations.
“Overwhelmed, hurt, really confused,” he said of his feelings. “It’s mind-boggling to me. I don’t really understand what’s going on. I don’t think it’s malicious that they’re lying.”
Lederer’s next court appearance is set for 8:30 a.m. Monday, June 20. Both the prosecution and defense will give their final arguments, followed by the jury presenting its final verdict.