Groping allegations were lodged against uncharged Richland County priest, new documents show

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FARGO — Newly released documents from the Richland County Sheriff's Office regarding the investigation of a priest contain references to him grabbing and shaking the alleged victims' breasts and touching them on the behind.

The Forum received the documents Monday, Aug. 14, after requesting public records related to the sheriff office's investigation of Father Thomas Feltman, who was not criminally charged in the case.

Feltman, who serves in the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, has been on leave from St. John the Baptist Church in Wyndmere, N.D., and St. Arnold's Church in Milnor, N.D., since the allegations came to light in May. The sheriff's office said previously it was investigating Feltman following reports of "inappropriate activities" with youth, but did not elaborate on what that meant.

Feltman's attorney, Bruce Quick, said he also requested the investigation documents but hadn't yet received them. Regarding the claims that his client had grabbed and shaken a person's breasts, Quick said he hadn't heard that accusation before.

"If they (prosecutors) would have believed it, they would have charged him with something," Quick said.

In late July, Richland County State's Attorney Ron McBeth said he would not pursue criminal charges against Feltman because there was no evidence the touching was done for sexual reasons, which would be necessary to prove a sex offense was committed.

The documents released Monday are heavily redacted to omit names, ages, gender and other identifying information.

The sheriff's office said state law prevents the release of two reports in the investigation file. McBeth said releasing the information would violate Marsy's Law, which is designed to protect victims' rights.

Asked if the documents that were not released are more favorable to Feltman, McBeth said:

"You'd probably have to read between the lines, but I can't comment on that."

McBeth also said the alleged victims "did not recant anything."

'I slugged him'

The documents list two possible victims in the case. In a May 19 interview, a person told a sheriff's deputy that the incidents involving Feltman had taken place about six months prior.

The person told the deputy that Feltman "had groped and ran his arm down (redacted) arm, and then placed his hand under (redacted) shirt, touching (redacted) breast area."

The person stated this had happened more than once, and that another person had told her about similar incidents, where the priest "would try and put his hands around in a hugging attempt then try and get under (redacted) shirt as well."

The deputy was also told that Feltman had touched someone's behind and that the person "felt very uncomfortable."

In a June 20 interview, conducted by Richland County investigator Josh Beto and Agent Ward Williams of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, one alleged victim said the first episode involved a group setting, where people were standing shoulder to shoulder.

The alleged victim stated, "From behind, hands grabbed me and shook my fat, my breasts, you know." The person turned to slug a nephew, thinking he had done it, but instead, "It was Father, so I slugged him anyway."

One investigator asked the alleged victim to explain the body part Feltman had touched.

The person stated, "Right here, and took a hold of my fat, giggle (sic) my fat and shook my boobs."

The person "demonstrated by grabbing the upper part of (redacted) stomach and shaking it up and down." The person then asked, "Is that clear enough."

The person went on to say it was made clear to Feltman that the touching was unwelcome, adding "I told him to back off."

Later in the interview, the investigators were told, "Hopefully they will pull him (Feltman) into administrative and not a parish," and, "That's harsh, but I don't want any other (redacted) going through what (redacted) did."

Prior rough-housing concerns

Monsignor Joseph Goering, vicar general of the Fargo diocese, told investigators there had been concerns about Feltman "wrestling with older children or tickling them" when he served in the Walhalla, N.D., parish.

Goering said those concerns were not investigated by law enforcement or social service agencies and that the diocese gave Feltman training on proper boundaries.

On Monday, investigator Beto would not comment on the documents, and referred questions to the state's attorney's office.

The documents released to The Forum included eight letters of support from people connected to St. John the Baptist Church in Wyndmere.

One St. John parishioner wrote that she had given and received hugs from Feltman, "but I never had the occasion to feel uncomfortable around him. I feel that whatever he is being accused of was misinterpreted."

Another letter of support puts blame on the people who brought forward their concerns.

"I have reason to believe that there may be evidence of dysfunction in the family of the alleged accusers," the person wrote.

Paul Braun, a Fargo diocese spokesman, said the diocese also has not received the investigatory documents. "We're going to conduct an internal investigation to see where his future with the diocese is," Braun said.

Feltman has been a priest in the Fargo diocese since being ordained in 2001. He's been pastor of the Wyndmere and Milnor churches since 2015.