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Church whistleblower pressed superiors to take action on problem priests

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Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger is the former top canon lawyer for the archdiocese. She resigned in April.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The church lawyer turned whistleblower at the center of a series of investigative reports involving the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was described glowingly as "studious, thoughtful and extremely well prepared" by the archbishop who hired her in 2008. 

As of last week, a lawyer for the archdiocese was referring to her as a disgruntled former employee.

Jennifer Haselberger, who left her position as chancellor for canonical affairs last April, was appointed to the post in August 2008 by Archbishop John Nienstedt. She resigned four and a half years later after a series of unsuccessful attempts to get her superiors to take action on problem priests.

One of those efforts, which she later described as the "nuclear option," involved copying pornographic images that had been found on a priest's computer onto a word document and sending them to the archbishop. Some of the images, she said, appeared to show boys engaged in sexual acts.

After Nienstedt failed to call the police, his deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, ordered Haselberger to hand over the images. She did so, she said — and called Ramsey County authorities. She also contacted MPR News. Information from Haselberger figures prominently in a series of investigative reports that MPR has published in recent weeks on the church's responses to revelations about troubled priests.

• Full coverage of the archdiocese investigation

On Tuesday, St. Paul police announced that they were reopening their investigation into the priest involved in Haselberger's "nuclear option." The department had closed its investigation of the Rev. Jonathan Shelley last week, citing a lack of evidence.

Survivors group thanks Haselberger
Supporters of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests' Minnesota chapter stood outside the Cathedral of St. Paul Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, 2013, handing out leaflets and talking to churchgoers before the church's 5 p.m. Mass. The group, five in total, was out in response to the latest revelations in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.
MPR Photo/Meg Martin

As chancellor for canonical affairs, Haselberger's role was to advise Nienstedt on church law and to maintain records. She formerly held positions in the dioceses of Fargo and Crookston.

Haselberger graduated from the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul in 1999 before earning advanced degrees at the University of London and Catholic University Leuven in Belgium.

During her time at St. Catherine's, she struck up a correspondence with a death row inmate in Louisiana and eventually became the condemned man's spiritual director, according to an article published by the school's news service. His sentence was commuted after Hurricane Katrina destroyed records.

In her job at the archdiocese, Haselberger reportedly tried several times to warn her superiors that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was unfit for the ministry. Haselberger told MPR News that church officials knew Wehmeyer had engaged in sexual misconduct for years and yet failed to warn his parishioners. Now Wehmeyer is serving a prison sentence for sexually abusing children and possession of child pornography.

  Haselberger said she felt badly about the church's failure to prevent the abuse after being informed about Wehmeyer's previous behavior. But if she had resigned at that time, she recalled later, information would have remained hidden.

  "My burden in that sense wasn't going away," she told MPR News. When she did resign last April, she said, "I decided that my primary purpose with all of this would be to make this information public."

  Now she's calling on Archbishop Nienstedt to release the names of priests who've been credibly accused of abuse or who may pose a risk to children. The archdiocese has declined MPR's interview requests since its first story appeared two weeks ago.