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Twin Cities archdiocese hid claims of child sex abuse, church lawyer details

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ST. PAUL -- The whistleblower who disclosed priest sexual abuse cases and their mishandling by the Twin Cities archdiocese has written a scorching 107-page affidavit that describes top officials’ cover-ups, blaming of victims, willful ignorance, lies and a “cavalier attitude toward the safety of other people’s children.”

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Canon lawyer Jennifer M. Haselberger, who served as chancellor for canonical affairs at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 2008 to 2013, submitted the document in the civil case of Doe 1. The plaintiff sued the archdiocese, the Diocese of Winona and former priest Thomas Adamson last year, claiming Adamson abused him in the 1970s. Plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Anderson filed Haselberger’s affidavit Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court.

Anderson’s experience with church-related sexual abuse cases goes back 30 years, he said, and he found the affidavit to be “the most stinging and broad-ranging indictment I’ve ever seen of these practices.”

Anderson claims in the Doe 1 lawsuit that the archdiocese created a “public nuisance” by moving offending priests among parishes without disclosing allegations against them.

Haselberger explained her motivation for penning the affidavit to the Pioneer Press on Tuesday. “While it is for the court to determine whether the archdiocese has created a public nuisance, I think our community benefits from the knowledge of the archdiocese’s practices,” she said.

Haselberger detailed the action, or lack of action, of past and present officials in the archdiocese, including former Archbishop Harry Flynn, Archbishop John Nienstedt, Bishop Lee Piche, former Vicar General Kevin McDonough, former Vicar General Peter Laird and former chancellor for civil affairs and archdiocese attorney Andrew Eisenzimmer.

In a written statement, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said Tuesday that Haselberger’s “recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese,” but her experience “highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children.”

The archdiocese has addressed some issues Haselberger raised by implementing recommendations of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force, which was convened last fall, Cozzens said.

Haselberger said she endured “months of harassment, threats and intimidation” before she resigned April 30, 2013.

On two occasions, she called a friend who worked for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and reported what she knew — feeling she was “out of options” with the church.

Once was days after the archdiocese learned of accusations that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer had abused two boys of his parish in his personal camper, parked in the Blessed Sacrament parking lot in St. Paul. He is now serving a five-year prison sentence.

The second time she called prosecutors was to report that the archdiocese possessed pornographic images from the Rev. Jonathan Shelley’s computer but had failed to turn over to police results of a consultant’s investigation. Police later determined that the images did not depict minors, though Haselberger pointed out that Shelley refused to give officials other computers he owned.

McDonough favored light approach

For years, McDonough was the main point person for the archdiocese on child sexual abuse.

He gave detailed testimony in his April 16 deposition about archdiocese policies and practices regarding sexual abuse, which he had put in place beginning in the late 1980s, Haselberger said.

She always perceived “a certain amount of pride” in McDonough about the work he did during those early years. But she believed he struggled to accept that the church “largely repudiated” those policies and procedures in 2001 and 2002.

The year 2002 saw U.S. bishops’ adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which included requirements that all reports of child sex abuse be forwarded to civil authorities and that dioceses be transparent with the public about abuse.

Another document, the Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutella of 2001, advocated for dismissal of clergy who abuse children.

But McDonough wasn’t about to change the way he dealt with offending priests, Haselberger wrote.

McDonough also advised against making lists of accused priests “because of the extreme likelihood that such lists would be sought in litigation resulting from the probable passage of the Child Victims Act,” she wrote. (The act was passed by the state Legislature last year.)

In a footnote, she continued, “the only argument that I ever heard against publishing the list that did not involve the words ‘litigation’ or ‘Jeff Anderson’ was that doing so would be unfair to the ‘dead guys’ who may have been falsely accused.”

As for the living priests, many enjoyed years of active ministry — and anonymity — after accusations of abuse, Haselberger wrote.

Haselberger also criticized the archdiocese’s practice of sending emails to individuals making reports of abuse, rather than visiting them in person. It was no way to treat potential victims, she said, and it contributed to her belief that when the archdiocese “investigated” something, “it was always done in such a way as to ensure that we concluded the investigation with less clarity than we began with.”

Furthermore, officials such as Eisenzimmer, the attorney, avoided looking at accused priests’ files and discouraged her from doing so, telling her to “stop looking under rocks,” she said.

Lax monitoring

Those priests who were found to have committed misconduct or abuse were, at times, placed on the archdiocese’s monitoring program. But despite McDonough’s contention that the program was “state of the art,” Haselberger strongly disagreed. Having designed such programs for other dioceses and participated in seminars in which they were discussed, “I feel qualified to state unequivocally that the archdiocese’s program was not ‘state of the art,’ nor was it even adequate,” she wrote.

Unlike other monitoring programs, McDonough’s was a “probationary” model characterized by infrequent — “often quarterly or less” — meetings with the priests and heavily reliant on the priests’ self-reports, Haselberger wrote.

Haselberger stayed in her position for four years, despite the difficulties, because she hoped to help fix the “very serious problems” that she had identified. But that effort was fruitless, she said.

She was asked many times last fall whether she believed that Nienstedt should resign. She said no, at first.

But her view changed after she was interviewed this spring by attorneys at Greene Espel regarding allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct by Nienstedt with seminarians, priests and other adult men, Haselberger said. The archdiocese hired the law firm to investigate.

One issue under investigation, she was told, was “whether the archbishop had a personal and distinctly unprofessional relationship with Father Wehmeyer that may have influenced the archbishop’s decision to disregard my warnings about Father Wehmeyer’s prior conduct and the risk he posed,” she wrote.

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer in Vienna, Va., with more than 30 years of experience in priest sex abuse issues, said he would not be surprised if Nienstedt is asked “fairly quickly to resign.”

“If he had any decency, he’d go right now,” Doyle said. “What I see happening in Minneapolis/St. Paul is a fragile house of cards that they have constructed over the years is falling apart.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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