Twin Cities Catholics reacted with surprise, disappointment and forgiveness Sunday morning after hearing parish leaders discuss reports that church officials may have covered up evidence that a Hugo priest kept child pornography on his computer.
At the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Susan Engel was frustrated at new allegations of sexual misconduct in the church. “I feel angry that it is happening again. We thought they had a plan in place to deal with it right away and not cover it up and it sounds like it wasn’t followed.”
The latest controversy surfaced last week, when the second highest prelate in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis resigned amid contentions that he covered up evidence of child pornography found on a priest’s computer.
Many Twin Cities parishioners heard a pulpit announcement Sunday saying that Archbishop John Nienstedt had appointed a new vicar, who will choose members for an independent task force to begin meeting this week to review all issues related to allegations of clergy misconduct. The task force will recommend new actions or policies and its findings will be made public, the archdiocese said. The new vicar is the Rev. Reginal Whitt, of the University of St. Thomas Law School.
The announcement also pledged “zero tolerance for abuse,” and asked parishioners to “please pray for all victims of sexual misconduct in Church ministry and in our society.”
The task force has been criticized as a public relations gambit by the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), whose national director, David Clohessy, went to the Cathedral of St. Paul on Sunday afternoon to hand out fliers urging churchgoers to alert authorities to suspected sexual crimes and misdeeds by clergy members.
In a written statement earlier Sunday, SNAP said that the archdiocese’s new task force wouldn’t be independent because Whitt, who will select its members, was appointed by the archbishop. Nienstedt himself should be investigated for possible involvement in a coverup, the group said. SNAP also called for a state or federal investigation into the coverup allegations.
Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso declined to comment on SNAP’s criticism.
Most people entering the cathedral on Sunday took a flier, but some declined and made their way up the church steps quietly. One man eyed Clohessy and his SNAP sign while crossing Selby Avenue, and said to the three people with him, “Don’t take any pamphlets, please.”
At other parishes Sunday, some church members chided the media for focusing on the sexual misconduct of clergy.
“I believe the Catholic church is being singled out,” said Bill Courteau, standing outside St. John the Baptist Church in Hugo, where the priest whose computer files sparked the latest controversy last served. “I do believe that no matter who does it, a coverup never works … I am praying for the church and for the people involved. We are all humans. We are people who are not perfect. Only God is in that corner.”
Another Hugo parish member, Jack Ascheman said the recent allegations won’t affect his faith in God or his church.
“Why would I quit coming because somebody made a mistake? I don’t think anybody approves of it [alleged misconduct], but you have to deal with the church. I have faith in the Catholic church. They have had their ups and downs. Lots of people make mistakes, but as a whole, religion is a good thing for everybody’s life.”
The new allegations were made by a former high-ranking attorney for the archdiocese, Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April. She earlier had accused the church of overlooking for a decade the sexual compulsions of another priest — Curtis Wehmeyer of St. Paul — and not warning parishioners. Wehmeyer is serving five years after being convicted of sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.
Outside the Cathedral of St. Paul, Paula Ruddy of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform carried a sign with a message for Haselberger.
“Thanks to Jennifer,” the sign read.
The priest and archdiocese have admitted that pornography was found on the Hugo priest’s computer, but said no child porn images were on the three discs viewed by police and a state forensic expert, hired by the archdiocese. St. Paul police said they were given the three discs, but not the computer. They declined to press charges against the priest, so the Star Tribune has not named him. He served parishes in Hugo, Mahtomedi, Stillwater and Bayport from 1995 to 2012. The Washington County attorney said Friday he assigned two attorneys to look into possible criminal charges against the Hugo priest and St. Paul police are considering whether to reopen their investigation.
The alleged misconduct “is pretty shocking for us. We don’t know what to make of it,” said Leon Nesvacil, a 20-year-plus member of St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, where the Hugo priest also served. He recalled the priest as a friendly man with homilies that hit the mark. “We thought so much of him that to hear these allegations is shocking and disappointing.”
Staff Writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report. Jim Adams • 612-673-7658