Troubling new abuse scandal for Catholics in Minnesota

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, October 9, 2013

ST. PAUL — Jennifer Haselberger tried to ring alarm bells at the top ranks of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese when she found evidence pointing to recent, troubling behavior by two priests — including pornographic images on one priest’s computer discs and documents suggesting the other was addicted to sex.

But Haselberger, who resigned last April as the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs, said she felt ignored. She has since gone public with concerns that Minnesota’s archbishop and top deputies failed to truly reform how they handle problem priests, despite repeated promises to do so.

“I do not believe it can be said that the archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect” children and young people, Haselberger said last week in a statement to the media.

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Unlike many of the abuse revelations that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, the allegations Haselberger brought to light aren’t decades old or involve perpetrators long retired or dead. They all happened after 2002, when U.S. bishops held a high-profile meeting in Dallas and approved broad policy changes meant to quickly remove predatory priests from parishes and restore the church’s tattered credibility with millions of Catholics.

“They weren’t just going to sweep stuff under the rug. They weren’t going to move him around,” said Joe Ternus, who in 2004 found what he called “a ridiculous amount of pornography” on the hard drive of a computer he purchased at a church rummage sale and that had belonged to Jonathan Shelley, a parish priest.

Ternus, whose parents and sister attended Shelley’s church, turned the hard drive over to archdiocesan officials.

“I was given assurances that this wasn’t going to happen, but that’s exactly what happened,” Ternus said.

Haselberger’s allegations have the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese playing defense. Last week, Archbishop John Nienstedt’s top deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, resigned, saying he hoped to “repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse.” Nienstedt also convened what he said would be an independent task force to examine the way church officials have handled accusations of sexual misconduct by priests.

But church leaders weren’t initially so eager to deal with the cases. Minnesota Public Radio News obtained a letter from Nienstedt to Cardinal William Levada, the now-retired Vatican official who ran the office that oversees errant priests, spelling out how an archdiocese investigator found pornographic images on Shelley’s hard drive that were at least “borderline illegal, because of the youthful looking male images.”

“My staff has expressed concern that the fact that CD-ROMs containing the images remain in the cleric’s personnel file could expose the archdiocese, as well as myself, to criminal prosecution,” Nienstedt wrote in the letter.

Haselberger said she was later told Nienstedt’s letter was never actually sent to the Vatican.

The archdiocese declined to make Nienstedt or Laird available for interviews. Spokesman Jim Accurso said media coverage of the recent allegations “leave a false impression about the commitment of the archdiocese to identify and address sexual misconduct by priests.” He said eliminating any form of abuse is the “highest priority” for the archdiocese.

Tom Wieser, an attorney for the archdiocese, has called Haselberger “a disgruntled former employee.” She worked at the archdiocese from 2008 to last April, when she resigned because of concerns about the way sexual abuse allegations were handled.

According to a recent police report, Haselberger found computer discs and a report in the vault last year that appeared to be evidence from a 2004 internal investigation into the images. The document accompanying the discs details thousands of pornographic images including some depicting someone who appeared to be a prepubescent boy, the police report said.

The police report also said Haselberger told Laird what she found, and was instructed to “put them back in the vault.”

An attorney for the archdiocese said a computer forensics expert found no evidence to support Haselberger’s allegations. Police also found no evidence of child pornography but acknowledged in the report they didn’t have the computer itself.

“Two sets of eyes have looked at these discs. Both have concluded that they do not contain child pornography,” said Shelley’s attorney, Paul Engh.

Police received new information from Ternus on Friday, and on Tuesday afternoon they announced they were reopening the child pornography investigation.

In a statement Tuesday, the archdiocese said: “We will cooperate with any investigation, as we have cooperated since the outset.”

In the other case at issue, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was allowed to remain in ministry in St. Paul, and was promoted to pastor in 2009, despite ample evidence that archdiocesan leaders knew of sexual misconduct, Haselberger said. He is now in prison for sexually abusing two children in 2010 and for possessing child pornography.

Months after Haselberger was hired in 2008, she noticed Wehmeyer’s file contained documents that said he had a sexual addiction and had violated the archdiocese’s code of conduct several times, MPR reported. She warned church officials.

“Having worked on similar cases in other dioceses, I was completely unprepared for the responses I received in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

In a Sept. 27 letter, Nienstedt said he did not suspect Wehmeyer was a risk to children when he named him pastor and that now it is clear Wehmeyer should not have been in active ministry. He apologized for not handling the matter more aggressively.

The new policies formulated by bishops in 2002 were specifically designed to quickly root out problem priests. One church leader instrumental in that process was Harry Flynn, Nienstedt’s predecessor in St. Paul-Minneapolis. Flynn is implicated in some of the decisions that Haselberger brought to light. Flynn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“Since 2002, there was a real sea change, and I believe most bishops got it,” said Nicholas Cafardi, an expert in church law. A professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Cafardi said he would be personally shocked to learn that top officials in any diocese sheltered potential abusers since then.

Cafardi cautioned that he’s not familiar with the new allegations, and noted in particular that finding a priest in possession of legal pornography raises thorny questions for his supervisors in the church. But if it’s proven that church leaders failed to live up to the 2002 policies, he said, it would damage the church’s efforts to move beyond past scandals.

“Any diocese that’s not following that makes people question the credibility of the policy,” he said. “That then harms the entire church in the U.S., because people will think if this bishop does it, then is another bishop doing it?”