Priest allegations reported to Diocese of Fargo before turning to law enforcement, attorney says
Neil Joseph Pfeifer was released Friday, Feb. 3, on $5,000 cash bail.
JAMESTOWN – An allegation of sexual assault by a Jamestown priest was reported by a victim to the Diocese of Fargo on Dec. 17, 2022, but became very frustated with how the internal investigation was handled and ultimately turned to law enforcement in January, according to Tim O’Keeffe, partner with O’Keeffe O’Brien Lyson Attorneys, who is representing the victims.
“It was only then that the diocese reacted and removed the priest from the community in Jamestown,” he said.
Neil Joseph Pfeifer, 48, was arrested Wednesday, Feb. 1, in Rugby, North Dakota, and taken to the Pierce County Correctional Facility. He was charged Friday, Feb. 3, in Southeast District Court in Jamestown with sexual exploitation by a therapist, a Class C felony, and sexual assault, a Class A misdemeanor.
Pfeifer pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault and sexual exploitation by a therapist and was released Friday, Feb. 3, on $5,000 cash bail. He is being tracked electronically 24/7.
Pfeifer was removed from active ministry on Jan. 14 pending an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct with adults, the diocese announced on that same day. Pfeifer served St. James Basilica in Jamestown, St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church in Buchanan and St. Mathias Catholic Church in Windsor.
Pfeifer came to St. James Basilica after the death of Monsignor Jeffrey Wald in October 2020.
A victim reported to law enforcement on Jan. 13 that she was sexually assaulted by Pfeifer on Dec. 17, 2022, at the rectory located at St. James Basilica, according to court documents. Court documents say Pfeifer pushed her onto her back on his bed, laid on top of her and began kissing her on the lips and neck before she told him no and pushed him off. Pfeifer then inappropriately touched the woman over her clothing and started kissing her neck and mouth again before she left the rectory, the document said.
On Thursday, Feb. 2, Pfeifer denied the accusations of inappropriately touching the woman and admitted he was helping her deal with depression issues for a while, court documents say. Pfeifer said the woman is not known to be a liar and he did not know why she would make up the allegations, court documents say.
The investigation is ongoing and additional charges are possible, said Maj. Justin Blinsky, assistant chief of police with the Jamestown Police Department. The Rugby Police Department and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office also assisted the Jamestown Police Department, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Logan County Sheriff’s Office and the Napoleon Police Department with the investigation.
The Jamestown Sun attempted to reach the Diocese of Fargo by email for comment on Friday but received no response.
Bishop John Folda of the Diocese of Fargo said in a statement Thursday, Feb. 2, that the diocese is cooperating fully with the investigation.
“We find it unsettling that Catholic officials always emphasize how cooperative they are when a victim comes forward,” the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a news release Friday. “We suspect this is an outright attempt to disassociate themselves from the horror of sex-related crimes, and to make it appear to parishioners and the general public that they were totally clueless.”
O’Keeffe said he isn’t sure how many potential victims of sexual assault there are.
“I know I have talked to more than two,” he said. “I have two clients right now. “I have suspicions prior to that as well.”
O’Keeffe said he knows about the most recent incident of sexual assault that allegedly occurred on Dec. 17.
“There are other incidents I know about going back almost two years,” he said.
O'Keeffe said his clients are “incredibly brave” to speak out about the incidents so the same thing won’t happen to anyone else.
“It’s also incredibly horrifying to hear about the stories and what they went through,” he said.
O’Keeffe said he and his law partner, Tatum O’Brien, will help their clients understand the criminal process.
“We will also be inserting civil claims against the Diocese of Fargo and the priest,” he said.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said independent professionals in law enforcement should be investigating the alleged crimes, not the “biased and often corrupt amateurs in church offices.” The organization said the bishop of the Diocese of Fargo should visit every place where Pfeifer worked and urge those who may have experienced, witnessed or suspected abuse to contact the police immediately.
Anyone with any information regarding these incident(s) is encouraged to contact Jamestown Police Sgt. Jason Prochnow at (701) 252-2414 or BCI Special Agent Troy Kelly at (701) 251-2993.