Victims group dismisses archdiocese review of clergy sexual abuse cases as 'nothing but a smokescreen'

Rev. Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis spoke to a prayer vigil in St. Paul, Minn. Friday, April 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The director of a group that advocates for victims of predator priests dismissed as a sham an order from the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis that the church form a clergy sexual-misconduct task force.

"It's nothing but a smokescreen," said Bob Schwiderski, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), during a phone interview with MPR News Sunday afternoon.

A Saturday letter from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis asked priests to tell parishioners during Mass this weekend about Archbishop John Nienstedt's formation of a lay task force that will review the handling of clergy sexual misconduct.

"It is also critical that the assessment of this situation is done by an independent group so that there can be no question of the integrity of the review," the letter read.

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The archbishop appointed the Rev. Reginald Whitt, a Dominican priest and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, to "oversee the current administration related to clergy misconduct" and appoint the lay task force.

Canon law requires that a priest name the members of such a task force. But Whitt will not be a member, nor have any say in its work. Findings and recommendations of the lay group will be made public, the Saturday archdiocesan letter said. No timetable was provided.

Schwiderski was unimpressed.

"We've shaken hands with three bishops in the last 12 years who said they'd ask for our side in dealing with priests who have perpetrated sex crimes," he said. "We have yet to hear from them."

Nienstedt first announced the formation of the task force in a letter on Sept. 27. He apologized in that letter for his mishandling of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest who sexually abused two boys. An MPR News investigation published on Sept. 23 found that Catholic leaders ignored alarms concerning Wehmeyer.

Yet news that archdiocesan leaders kept secret Wehmeyer's attraction to boys and another priest's collection of "borderline illegal" pornography didn't make Kathy Fink any less forgiving.

"It's sad, but since the beginning of time there's been a lot of problems, and our whole goal in life is to become saints and get to heaven," the Minneapolis resident said during the annual Candlelight Rosary Procession from the State Capitol to the Cathedral of St. Paul on Friday. "That's the bottom line, is to help each other in whatever problems we have, and to look at the good. Always the good."

Sara Fleetham, faith formation coordinator for the Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale, was less generous.

"The system is broken," Fleetham said. "It's completely broken and it doesn't work and something has to be done."

Fleetham said she has deep distrust of the archdiocese.

"It feels as if we, as in church workers, are getting kicked in the face repeatedly because this is so wrong on so many levels, because it's not getting fixed," Fleetham said.

Saturday's letter went out only hours after the former archdiocesan chancellor of canonical affairs called on Nienstedt to conduct an external review of clergy files.

Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April to protest what she considered immoral practices by Catholic leaders, released a statement yesterday.

She requested that Nienstedt "make public the list of clergy who have been determined to have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct, as well as those whom could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children and young people."

Multiple statements by Nienstedt and archdiocesan officials during the last two weeks have repeated their policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse of children by clergy.

"Our standard is zero tolerance for child abuse by priests and absolute accountability," Neinstedt wrote in his Sept. 27 letter.

But investigations by MPR News have shown otherwise. A Friday report found that Neinstedt and others dismissed Haselberger's concerns that a priest had "borderline illegal" pornography on his computer.

And the report on Sept. 23 found that church leaders ignored Haselberger's and other warnings about Wehmeyer.

Haselberger resigned after about four years at the archdiocese because it was "impossible for me to continue in that position given my personal ethics, religious convictions, and sense of integrity," she told MPR News.

She began sharing information about sexual misconduct by archdiocesan priests with MPR News in July.

Complaints to superiors led them to call her belligerent and difficult, Haselberger said.

Tom Wieser, an attorney who represents the archdiocese, called Haselberger a "disgruntled former employee" on Thursday during a Ramsey County hearing in St. Paul about clergy sexual abuse.

Hours later, the archdiocese's second in command, the Rev. Peter Laird, resigned from his position as vicar general, effective immediately. Neither Laird nor Nienstedt called police after Haselberger showed them images last year from a priest's computer that she believed were child pornography. Instead, Laird ordered Haselberger to hand over the images.

A police investigation of the matter closed on Wednesday without filing charges. The St. Paul Police Department's sex crimes and vice units found no child pornography in the materials provided to them by the archdiocese.

But church officials declined to give Sgt. William Gillet the materials he requested when he visited archdiocesan offices in March. Instead, they waited two days before providing three computer discs to police. Even then, however, they refused to give Gillett any documents related to the Rev. Jonathan Shelley and his pornography, explaining those were "the product of their investigation."

In a police report he filed Sept. 29, Gillet wondered whether he received all the evidence from the archdiocese.

St. Paul police on Friday obtained a copy of Shelley's pornography-filled computer files. Howie Padilla, a St. Paul police spokesman, said on Friday that he did not know whether the contents would merit reopening the case. He said police would examine the information for evidentiary value.

The county attorneys for Ramsey and Washington Counties said on Friday that they are ready to prosecute the case if police find anything illegal on the computer. Washington County Attorney Peter Orput said he instructed two people in his office to look into the case if police turn over any new information.

Also on Saturday, officials at the Diocese of Duluth announced in a statement that one of their retired priests, the Rev. Cornelius Kelleher had "been credibly accused in the sexual abuse of a minor female during his time as pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Chisholm from 1975 to 1986." Diocese officials said they immediately removed Kelleher from ministry. No formal criminal charges or litigation exist in connection with this accusation, the statement said.

"I deeply regret the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual misconduct on the part of clergy and am completely committed to assisting its victims and preventing any recurrence of these crimes," wrote Bishop Paul Sirba in a letter, according to the statement. "I ask you to join me in prayer for all those who have been wounded by sexual misconduct on the part of the clergy."

A press conference with Sirba is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, at the diocesan Pastoral Center, the statement said.

MPR News reporters Jon Collins and Rupa Shenoy contributed to this report.