Last week, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced a new task force that will examine issues related to archdiocesan sexual-abuse policies. Nienstedt has been under scrutinty since late September, when Jennifer Haselberger, his former chancellor for canonical affairs, went to the police and the press with damning accounts of the ways her superiors--and their predecessors--handled the cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct. She resigned in April after deciding that, given her ethical commitments, "it had become impossible for me to stay in that position."

The task force will be composed of at least six members--all laypeople, none employed by the archdiocese--and their findings will be made public. The archdiocese seems to believe that this group will find and fill the gaps in its policies that permitted these lapses to occur. Others agree. “These are very significant charges,’’ Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "This was larger than the process and procedures [to halt sexual misconduct] were able to address.’’ But a review of facts of these cases fails to support that claim. The problem in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is not with its sexual-abuse policies, but with the people entrusted to carry them out. 

In the case of one priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, Haselberger revealed that for nearly a decade the archdiocese had been aware of his troubling sexual proclivities but failed to warn his parishioners--and promoted him to pastor of a parish where he eventually abused children. Wehmeyer was sent for counseling in 2004, after it was discovered that he had propositioned two young men at a bookstore. A friend of the men, aged nineteen and twenty, took their statements and gave them to Fr. Kevin McDonough, then vicar general, who promised the priest would be dealt with accordingly. The man had a fifteen-year-old son who attended youth group with Wehmeyer. As Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports, he "wasn’t satisfied with McDonough's answers, and he worried that he might hear about Wehmeyer in the news years later."

When Wehmeyer returned from treatment, he was assigned another priest to monitor him, and was told to attend Sexaholics Anonymous meetings. But that didn't keep him out of trouble.

One afternoon in 2006, a police officer saw Wehmeyer at a popular cruising area in a local park. When he approached Wehmeyer, the priest claimed he didn't know it was a pickup spot. "I'm a priest," he told the cop. "I know I shouldn't be here." Wehmeyer left, but returned within fifteen minutes. The police officer informed the archdiocese, and was told by McDonough (still vicar general) that they would "have a very serious follow-up and intercede." Later that year, then-Archbishop Harry Flynn appointed Wehmeyer administrator of Blessed Sacrament Parish. Flynn completed his work as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse in 2005.

Nienstedt was appointed coadjutor in April 2007, and succeeded Flynn as archbishop in May 2008.

Later that year, Nienstedt hired Haselberger. Soon after she arrived, Wehmeyer phoned her demanding to know why he was still listed as administrator of Blessed Sacrament instead of pastor. In view of his sexual habits, that's not surprising: it's harder for a bishop to remove a pastor. Aware that Nienstedt was considering Wehmeyer's request, she reviewed his personnel file, and found a curious omission. Even though it was archdiocesan policy to run background checks on its priests, there was none in his file. She kept looking, and came across documents detailing his sexual misconduct and his psychological evaluation. She gathered the relevant papers and forwarded them to Nienstedt, believing Wehmeyer would be removed.

He wasn't. And while he remained in charge of Blessed Sacrament, the archdiocese received more complaints--three in 2009. A priest claimed Wehmeyer had propositioned him. Another person saw him at a campground behaving strangely with boys (Haselberger told MPR that those kids would become his victims). He drunkenly attempted to pick up teenagers at a gas station, and was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

The following year, Archbishop Nienstedt appointed Wehmeyer pastor of Blessed Sacrament. When it was suggested by the sexual-abuse review board that the archdiocese inform parish employees of Wehmeyer's past, McDonough objected. At that point he was no longer vicar general, but had been appointed "delegate for safe environment"--that is, he was in charge of the archdiocesan response to clergy sexual abuse. In a 2011 memo, McDonough argued that Wehmeyer's misconduct would not resurface in the workplace. "Disclosure there would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!)." Before offering that judgment, however, McDonough decided to consult Wehmeyer himself. Naturally, he didn't think it was necessary to share his past lapses in judgment with parish staff. By that time he had already molested two children of a Blessed Sacrament employee.

Wehmeyer's crimes were discovered in May 2012. In November of that year, he pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct and seventeen counts of possessing child pornography. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Police are investigating whether he had other victims.

Just a few months before Wehmeyer's victims acknowledged his crimes, Jennifer Haselberger got word that another priest was being considered for promotion, and decided to examine his file. (I won't use the priest's name because he has not been charged with a crime.) What she found shocked her: three discs containing thousands of pornographic images--including some that seemed to depict minors--and a 2004 report on the contents of the computer from which they were taken. The computer had belonged to the priest who was up for promotion. (She also found a mid-1990s report about the priest wrestling with boys while in seminary, and another indicating that in 2009 he'd had an eighteen-year-old parishioner living with him at the rectory.)

On the discs was a warning "saying something to the effect of 'don't insert these disks into a computer that's attached to the internet' and 'see previous report prior to viewing images,'" Haselberger told MPR. The note was in Fr. McDonough's handwriting.

In 2004, the priest's computer came into the possession of Joe Ternus (accounts of how he obtained the machine differ, either through a garage sale or after the priest left it behind after taking a new assignment). Ternus, a local parishioner, thought he'd give the computer to his kids. But before doing so, he had a look at its contents. After coming across many "hard-core" images, he took the computer to the archdiocese, and was told they'd follow up. They hired a private-investigation firm, which had a forensic-computer expert analyze the hard drive. His report referred to "thousands" of pornographic images, and described some of them as "borderline illegal," according to Haselberger, who saw images seeming to show a minor performing oral sex. She also saw that the forensic expert had turned up several disturbing search terms, including "naked boy pics," "young boys," and "helpless teen boys." The report indicated that "there is no credible evidence to support the claim that person(s) other than" the priest accessed the images. (Haselberger quotes the report at some length in her February 2012 memo to Nienstedt.)

When the archdiocese asked the priest to turn over his other computers, he smashed one of them with a hammer, Haselberger said, and refused to release the other one. Then-Archbishop Harry Flynn sent the priest for counseling. When he returned, Flynn put him back in ministry.

Haselberger made copies of the images and showed them to diocesan leaders--including Archbishop Nienstedt--last year. None called the police. Months later, when she brought the photos to then-Vicar General Fr. Peter Laird, he asked her to hand them over. She did. Then, as MPR reports, "I went back to my office. I closed the door and I called Ramsey County."

When the police called the chancery to obtain the evidence, they were told it would take time to gather the information. The archdiocese eventually provided police three discs that supposedly held the contents of the hard drive, but refused to give them the forensic study because it was a "product of their investigation," according to the police report. But the discs the police were given contained no images of minors. "Whether these discs given to me were the actual discs or copies of those discs after first asking for them, I do not know," the investigating officer wrote. And without the forensic study, the county lacked evidence to press charges against the priest. So they closed the case.

But while the police had given up investigating, the archdiocese was only beginning its year-long process of deciding how to deal with the priest. Haselberger warned Nienstedt in February and May of 2012 that possession of child pornography was a canonical and civil crime, and that reporting it was essential. Evidently she got through, because in May 2012, Nienstedt drafted a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seeking advice.

"I am writing to inform you of an instance of possession of pornographic images, possibly of minors under the age of fourteen," Nienstedt wrote. He seemed flummoxed by the fact that his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, did not report the case. (That would be the same Harry Flynn who was, at the time these images were discovered,  head of the USCCB's sexual-abuse committee.) "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." He quoted portions of the forensic report, and summarized some of the complaints the archdiocese had received about the priest. By that point Nienstedt had removed the priest from ministry.

But he never sent the letter, according to Haselberger.

Perhaps Fr. Kevin McDonough--former vicar general and former safe-environment czar--had persuaded him not to follow through. In January 2013, McDonough sent the archbishop two memos explaining that the images did not constitute child pornography. He assured Nienstedt that he had no memory of the 2004 report. Perhaps it was too shocking, he speculated. After viewing a few hundred of the twenty-three hundred photos, he did find some involving minors (he needed Haselberger's help to find those). But "those images are not in my judgment pornographic." Rather, they looked to him like "pop up" ads designed to entice one to view such smut. What's more, he explained, he'd read somewhere that 60 percent of child-pornography sites are run by law enforcement. Given the "absence of any law-enforcement involvement with him," the archbishop need not worry. He had no "reason further to pursue the question of child sexual abuse" with the priest.

To his credit, Nienstedt forwarded McDonough's memos to key staffers, including Haselberger, seeking their counsel "with regard to giving [the priest] a pastoral assignment."

Haselberger was livid. She told Nienstedt that McDonough was badly mistaken, and pointed out that when she showed both of them the images in May 2012, neither disputed that they were pornographic. She urged him to notify the police and turn over the evidence "for their determination." And she reminded him that McDonough had failed to follow the sexual-abuse review board's recommendation to inform Wehmeyer's parish staff of his history. That judgment, she wrote, "has been proven to be tragically wrong."

But Nienstedt did not heed her advice. Indeed, he was still considering whether to give this priest who he believed to have possessed "borderline illegal" photos a pastoral assignment. Why? And why did he promote Wehmeyer to pastor after being informed of his long history of totally unacceptable, indeed dangerous behavior? Nienstedt's service as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been distinguished by an energetic, and expensive, campaign against gay marriage. He recently told a crowd of "influential," wealthy Catholics that sodomy and pornography were the work of Satan--that they threatened the stability of our civilization. No one could accuse him of failing to take those issues seriously. Except, perhaps, those who take stock of his failures to act in these two cases.

His indecision could prove costly. Despite McDonough's confidence that he was qualified to determine whether naked images of minors constituted pornography, the law does not grant him--or any mandated reporter--the authority to determine what is and is not child pornography. The relevant statute is not terribly confusing. Even if minors are not depicted having sex, "lewd exhibitions of the genitals" is considered pornographic. And the law requires clergy to report suspected child abuse--including child pornography.

The law is not difficult to find. I Googled "Minnesota child pornography statute" and it came up as the first result. McDonough offered his assesment of the images in January 2013. Did he not have internet access at that time? Didn't any of this ring a bell for him or for Nienstedt? Had they missed the news that in 2011 Bishop Robert Finn had been charged with failing to report child abuse because he didn't call the cops when he learned that one of his priests had potentially illegal images on his computer? (He was later found guilty, and remains Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph.)

If Nienstedt has forgotten what happens when prosecutors start sniffing around chanceries in earnest, he may be about to receive a painful reminder. Because the police are going to re-open the case. Turns out the man who first handed over the priest's computer had made a copy of much of its contents (but not all). He's given it to the police. He himself didn't see any minors in the priest's library of porn, but he viewed just a small fraction of the collection. Will the police be able to pry the missing report from the archdiocese? Does it still exist, or did it end up with the now missing images Haselberger said she saw? Will Nienstedt's and Haselberger's citations of the report in the documents she released be sufficient to charge anyone with failing to report child abuse? We're going to find out.

But in the meantime, perhaps it would be a good idea to stop pretending that these failures had anything to do with policy, and admit that they were entirely the fault of a culture that prized self-protection and secrecy above disclosure and, yes, justice. Is it appalling when an archbishop acknowledges to ecclesiastical authorities that one of his priests is in possession of "borderline illegal" images of children but can't work up the will to share this information with the civil authorities? Yes. Just as it's troubling that a bishop who had long won the praise of inaugural members of the USCCB National Review Board apparently promoted a priest who had no business anywhere near children, and then seemingly failed to report a priest who may have downloaded child porn--just two years after he voted to approve the very rules the bishops adopted to address the scandal. But should you be surprised that bishops who fail so miserably have underlings who have trouble reading the reddest of flags?

Of course, it's not only clerics who help sustain this culture of denial. The maintenance man for Wehmeyer's parish told the police that for two years he noticed the same boys going to and from the priest's camper. “We told [the parish’s business administrator], and she should have done something about it.” Why didn't he?

No amount of "safe environment" training can fix this problem. It doesn't matter how independent a diocesan review board is on paper. Or how many laypeople have been tasked to overhaul a diocese's abuse policies. Or how sincerely a bishop promises to make room for a review board to do its work. We have seen it time and again. In Philadelphia, where the review board was seeing only the cases the archbishop decided to show them. In Kansas City-St. Joseph, where the review board wasn't informed of the child pornography on one of their priest's computers. In Newark, where a priest who admitted to groping a boy sexually was given a hospital assignment and a card proving his good standing. If a bishop decides to keep allegations to himself, he can. If he wants to sabotage strong sexual-abuse policies, he's free to do so. The only reason you're reading about any of this is because Jennifer Haselberger went public.

And the only person who can act decisively to change this culture of denial lives in Rome. Do you think he's listening to MPR?

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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