In 2008, Archbishop John Nienstedt welcomed attorney Jennifer Haselberger as his new chancellor for canonical affairs, calling the College of St. Catherine graduate and London University Ph.D. "studious, thoughtful and extremely well prepared."
By last week a lawyer for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis called Haselberger unsophisticated and imprudent.
These diverging opinions of Haselberger bookended a startling yet predictable case that began at a church rummage sale, included allegations of child porn hidden in a vault, and ended up in a St. Paul court last week. The whole thing reads like a Dan Brown novel.
The allegations were contained in a police report that surfaced on Ramsey County Court last week.
Attorney and church critic Jeff Anderson said the document revealed a possible cover-up. Haselberger claims she is a whistleblower who stumbled upon the child porn while doing a background check on a priest. She said in a police report that she personally provided evidence of the illegal porn to the Rev. Peter Laird, the vicar general, and even to Nienstedt himself, and that they ignored it.
The church said they found no child porn and no one did anything wrong. Yet, Laird resigned Thursday.
After church officials ignored her, Haselberger also called authorities. But by the time they paid a visit to the rectory, the computer was missing and three CDs in the vault contained only legal pornography. Haselberger told Minnesota Public Radio that the priest in question had smashed one computer with a hammer.
Will we ever know?
The officer on the case concluded: "It should be noted I do not have the computer [that housed the child pornography,] as we were told that was destroyed many years ago. Whether these disks given to me were the actual disks or copies of those disks after first asking for them, I do not know nor will I most likely ever know."
No, we might never know. And we might be tempted to dismiss the accusations if not for the Catholic Church's decades of denial and cover-up of sex abuse cases.
The church would like us all to believe that Haselberger may be a disgruntled employee. The detailed information she gave police, and her subsequent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, don't sound that way to me (the priest used search terms such as "free naked boy pics" for example). Keep in mind that Haselberger also blew the whistle in another case, uncovering the fact that the church knew about sexual abuse by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer.
He is now in prison.
Haselberger did what most people would do in this case, report it to the boss and alert authorities.
'Swept under the rug'
The man who initially bought the priest's computer and reported it to the church, Joe Ternus, told MPR: "We wanted to make sure this wasn't going to be treated like all the things in the news to that point with the Catholic Church, where people get picked up and moved around and things get swept under the rug."
But Haselberger said that's exactly what happened.
Child abuse and sex scandals have bankrupted churches and communities from Boston to Los Angeles. If Haselberger is right, and if any evidence remains, this could be the beginning of the destruction of yet another archdiocese.
This latest potential scandal comes at a time when the Catholic Church has been uplifted and reinvigorated internationally by a popular new pope. The allegations in St. Paul are a reminder that no amount of good will by good people can overcome the years of denial and obstruction by some.
David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), finds Haselberger's allegations completely believable because they are so familiar.
"If it was just legal porn, why did they take such pains to hide it?" Clohessy asked.
Most shocking in the allegations, Clohessy said, is that the priest hid "with help for a decade by several high-ranking church staffers. Frankly, a priest who [had child porn] would have been imprisoned for the last decade."
It's no accident that the most-recent news came at the hand of attorney Anderson, who has zealously pursued clergy abuse for more than two decades.
Over the years the media has gotten battle-weary covering Anderson's seemingly endless news conferences with yet more allegations of abuse. More than once he's been accused of crying wolf, and his cases have been dismissed as "just another Jeff Anderson attack."
But we would be wise to remember that sometimes people cry wolf because there are wolves.
Clohessy has been working on the issue for 25 years, and would be surprised if anyone in Minnesota faced serious repercussions.
"The most tragic lesson is that in all of these cases the hierarchy remains virtually untouchable," he said.
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