MINNEAPOLIS — In 2002, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis spearheaded the passage of the 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," the U.S. bishops’ landmark effort to overcome a scandalous legacy of clergy sexual abuse of minors and failed episcopal oversight.
Archbishop Flynn, who once chaired the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, retired in 2008, but his successor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, now faces allegations that diocesan leaders, past and present, failed to remove troubled priests from ministry and failed to report suspected possession of child pornography. The archbishop has now called for an independent review of archdiocesan policies and procedures for handling clergy sexual misconduct.
The recent furor began when Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who previously worked for the archdiocese, alleged that Archbishop Nienstedt ignored her warnings about the past misconduct of a diocesan priest, Father Curtis Wehmeyer, who would later plead guilty to charges of criminal sexual conduct involving minors and possession of child pornography in November 2012.
Haselberger served as the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs and also managed the records department from Aug. 18, 2008, to April 30, 2013. After her voluntary departure, which she said was prompted by the archdiocese’s response to her concerns, Haselberger spoke with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). Documents from the archdiocesan archives were supplied to local police and have been posted on MPR’s website.
She was also critical of instances where she believed the archdiocese failed to immediately forward concerns or allegations to local law enforcement, instead having chosen to conduct its own investigation in advance of such.
New Task Force
In an Oct. 24 column in the archdiocesan paper, The Catholic Spirit, Archbishop Nienstedt responded to the outpouring of concern and anger from local Catholics, as well as ongoing media scrutiny.
"The first thing that must be acknowledged is that over the last decade some serious mistakes have been made. We have indeed created many policies, procedures and practices designed to prevent and address clergy sexual misconduct," stated the archbishop. "There is reason to question whether or not the policies and procedures were uniformly followed. There is also a question as to the prudence of the judgments that have been made."
He pledged, "I will do all in my power to restore trust here in this local Church."
On Oct. 5, Archbishop Nienstedt announced the creation of an independent Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force of laypeople charged with reviewing "any and all issues related to clergy sexual misconduct and to make specific recommendations regarding actions to be taken and policies and procedures to be implemented," according to a statement that was noted by archdiocesan pastors after Sunday Mass.
Dominican Father Reginald Whitt, a University of St. Thomas law professor, has been appointed as the new vicar for ministerial standards charged with oversight of the new initiative. The statement pledged that the findings of the task force’s investigation will be published and its recommendations implemented.
James Accurso, a spokesman for the archdiocese, disputed Haselberger’s accusations in an Oct. 22 email message.
He told the Register that, "in all of our communications on this issue, we have consistently encouraged victims to first consult law enforcement as well as our victim’s assistance coordinator with any issues of clergy child sex abuse," including allegations involving Father Wehmeyer, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2012.
Further, he disputed Haselberger’s most incendiary accusation that Archbishop Nienstedt had ignored a warning from her about Father Wehmeyer’s compulsive sexual problems in 2010, when the priest was made a pastor.
"Our review of all of the correspondence on this matter does not indicate that this is an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding [Father] Wehmeyer’s appointment as pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish," said Accurso.
But Haselberger’s accusations have made local headlines and set off a cascade of charges involving the handling of cases dating back to Archbishop Flynn’s tenure as well.
Thus far, the archdiocese’s vicar general, Father Peter Laird, has resigned from his post, following a Sept. 23 MPR story detailing Haselberger’s allegation that Father Wehmeyer was appointed a pastor despite a documented history of sexual compulsion, including cruising areas known for anonymous homosexual encounters.
In a Sept. 23 statement, the archdiocese said it promptly reported subsequent allegations of criminal sexual conduct made against Father Wehmeyer in June 2012, following contact by a relative of two victims. Then the priest was immediately removed from ministry, and parishioners were informed of the accusations. "In hindsight and in light of what we now know, we also recognize that our handling of past concerns could have been better addressed," said the statement.
Haselberger contends that the archdiocese should not have appointed the priest as pastor or, once that decision was made, it should have alerted Father Wehmeyer’s parishioners about his history.
Instead, according to MPR, Father Laird was copied on a 2011 memo written by his predecessor, then-vicar general Father Kevin McDonough, who stated that the parishioners at Father Wehmeyer’s parish did not need to be informed about his sexual problems.
"I think that you share with me the opinion that he really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but, rather, was obtaining some stimulation by ‘playing with fire,’" Father McDonough stated in the memo. "This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace."
In the Sept. 23 MPR story, Father McDonough defended his decision not to inform parishioners about Father Wehmeyer’s history when it did not involve criminal behavior.
The Register contacted Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, who confirmed that the Dallas Charter does not require removal of priests involved in sexual misconduct that is wrong in the eyes of the Church but does not involve minors and is legally permitted.
"The bishop, however, has governance to deal with behavioral sexual misconduct or impropriety as you describe," said Deacon Nojadera.
A second Oct. 4 MPR report outlined Haselberger’s alleged efforts to prod Archbishop Nienstedt to deal with a trove of pornography obtained in 2004 from a computer once owned by a diocesan priest, Father Jonathan Shelley. Archbishop Nienstedt succeeded Archbishop Flynn in 2008.
When Haselberger reviewed the images, she feared that some might involve minors and thus constitute child pornography, a crime. She was dismayed that Archbishop Nienstedt did not send the files to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review, according to MPR, and she later contacted local police.
But MPR reported that "officers with the St. Paul Police Department’s sex crimes and vice units couldn’t find the child pornography" when they examined the files handed over by the archdiocese.
Further, archdiocesan spokesman Accurso told the Register, "Three independent professional analyses determined that pornographic images on [Father] Shelley’s computer were not of children or minors."
The MPR story cited speculation, without proof, that images of child pornography might have been removed from the disks. And, in October, the parishioner who originally discovered the files on the priest’s computer came forward with an extra copy to be reviewed by the police.
"There was no criminal stuff involved in it … and it was 10 years ago," Father Shelley told MPR.
According to MPR, Archbishop Nienstedt placed Father Shelley on sabbatical in June of last year.
Scrutinizing Past Handling
As the archdiocese moved forward with the appointment of respected experts to the new task force, public scrutiny shifted to Archbishop Flynn, who succeeded Archbishop John Roach in 1995.
On Oct. 14, MPR announced that a woman, who is represented by Jeff Anderson, the nation’s lead attorney on clergy-abuse lawsuits, had filed a lawsuit against Father Michael Keating, a diocesan priest and a professor at the University of St. Thomas, accusing him "of sexually abusing her when she was a teenager and he was studying to become a priest in the late 1990s."
According to news reports, the archdiocese and police had investigated the allegation against Keating in 2006 and found insufficient evidence of the charges.
Father Keating has since taken a leave of absence. In a statement, Father Keating’s attorney, Fred Bruno, said the woman’s claims "were thoroughly discredited over six years ago," referencing the investigations of the archdiocese and law enforcement.
However, the case raised questions about whether university administrators were informed about the 2006 allegations against Father Keating and the archdiocesan clergy review board’s subsequent recommendation that he avoid pastoral work that involved mentoring young people.
Amid the controversy, Archbishop Flynn resigned from his long-standing role as chairman of the board of trustees of the University of St. Thomas. An Oct. 19 statement from the university noted that Father McDonough, who previously served as the board’s vice chairman, had also resigned.
"St. Thomas has retained outside counsel to lead an independent investigation of matters related to clergy sexual-abuse allegations that impact the university," the statement disclosed. "The board is appointing a special committee to oversee the investigation and to review findings and recommendations."
Accurso, the archdiocese’s spokesman, confirmed that the clergy review board had determined that "there were no grounds for suspending [Father Keating’s] faculties."
He said, "The clergy review board recommended that [Father] Keating not be able to mentor teens and young adults; however, we have not yet determined if university officials were told of this."
Canon Lawyer: Safety, Well-Being of Children Church’s Top Priority
J.D. Flynn is a canon lawyer who presently serves as the communications director/special assistant to Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb.
Flynn holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and a licentiate degree in canon law from The Catholic University in America. He previous served the Denver Archdiocese as a canonical adviser to Archbishop Charles Chaput.
During an exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, he answered general questions about how canon law and the Dallas Charter guide bishops’ interactions with priests, but he did not address the specific cases under review in Minneapolis.
Does canon law offer specific direction on how dioceses should handle priests who have been involved in non-criminal sexual misconduct — i.e. sexual addiction, use of adult pornography, etc.? Should they be permanently removed, and should their misconduct be reported to local authorities or to parishes?
The most important relationship between a bishop and his priests is that of a father to his sons. There are a lot of situations that require direction, guidance, assistance and even correction which are not specifically the purview of canon law. A bishop is expected to exercise mature discernment about how priests with personal struggles, but not criminal behavior, can function in ministry.
There are a few factors which should contribute to that discernment: most especially, the safety and well-being of children and of the people of God; also, the priest’s own salvation, mental health and well-being; and, finally, the assessment of experts who can provide insight and counsel to the bishop.
Many bishops will work with priests struggling with addictions or instances of misconduct to ensure that they have resolved their issues and have a plan for ongoing wellness before selecting them for an assignment.
The "Essential Norms" (No. 3) expect that each diocese will appoint a coordinator to assist those who claim to have been abused by a cleric. This person usually works in conjunction with the diocesan review board and the diocesan Curia to receive claims of sexual abuse and to coordinate assistance for potential victims. This person is usually delegated to make reports to civil authorities whenever a claim of abuse is made.
Is there a "best practices" approach for dealing with priests involved in such sexual misconduct?
I think the Church, over the past decade, has demonstrated a very serious commitment to ensuring the safety of children and all Catholics and to very carefully providing assistance to priests who are struggling with mental-health issues. In many places, this commitment is long-standing; many dioceses addressed these issues thoughtfully even prior to the promulgation of the "Essential Norms." Allegations of sexual abuse are, in most places, reported quickly and candidly to the police. Ensuring safety is the No. 1 priority.
Over the past few years, the Holy See has appointed Americans to crucial positions in the adjudication of sexual-abuse cases across the globe. They’ve done this because the Church in America has responded decisively to sexual-abuse allegations. There will always be new lessons to learn, and there will occasionally be mistakes, but the Church can be proud of making the protection of children a very serious priority.