Archdiocese was warned of priest's correspondence with a possible minor

Rev. Jonathan Shelley
The Rev. Jonathan Shelley
Photo courtesy of The Citizen/Deb Barnes

A parishioner in Mahtomedi, Minn., warned a top deputy at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2004 that a priest's computer may have included inappropriate correspondence with a minor.

In a letter to then-vicar general Kevin McDonough, parishioner Kate Ternus described her concerns about the contents of the Rev. Jonathan Shelley's computer. Her family received Shelley's used computer in 2004, and the archdiocese later determined it contained "borderline illegal" pornography.

The letter dated Sept. 17, 2004 mentions a local Catholic high school and could indicate for the first time that Shelley's behavior may have gone beyond pornography. It includes the first name of the person with whom Shelley corresponded and raised concerns that that person might be Shelley's "boyfriend."

"What if [the individual] is a freshman soccer player? What if he's a recent graduate of St. Jude School?" Ternus wrote in the letter. "What if this actually is more than a matter of questionable taste? It feels like peeling an onion as layer after layer comes away."

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Shelley, who remains on a leave of absence, has told MPR News that he did not do anything illegal. MPR News is not naming the person with whom Shelley may have corresponded because he may have been a minor at the time.

Ternus, reached Thursday, said she remains frustrated with church leaders.

"I am a parent first and a Catholic second and lately even more removed," she said. "If that had been a kindergarten teacher I would have been concerned."

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks, following a series of investigative reports by MPR News. The reports detailed how top church officials failed to warn parishioners about a priest's sexual misconduct, did not report images on Shelley's computer to police that may been of minors, and gave extra payments to priests who sexually abused children.


In 2004, the son of Kate Ternus, Joe Ternus, turned on the computer to install video games for his children and discovered thousands of sexually explicit images. He and his family alerted the archdiocese.

When the archdiocese's private investigator found the computer contained "borderline illegal" images of young males, church officials did not call police and instead debated whether the images met the legal definition of child pornography.

Police learned of the images this year when archdiocese canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger called authorities. Haselberger, who resigned in April, said she showed several images that appeared to be child pornography to Archbishop John Nienstedt but he declined to take any action.

In response to Haselberger's report, St. Paul police asked the archdiocese to turn over evidence from Shelley's computer. Church officials provided three discs they said were copies of the images. Police never received the hard drive and couldn't find any child pornography. They closed the case a few weeks ago without charges. In a police report, lead investigator Sgt. William Gillet question whether the archdiocese turned over all the evidence.

"It should be noted I do not have the computer as we were told that was destroyed many years ago," Gillet wrote. "Whether these discs given to me were the actual discs or copies of those discs after first asking for them, I do not know nor will I most likely ever know."

Police reopened the case last week after receiving more evidence. A spokesman for the archdiocese said that it is cooperating with the latest investigation.


At a news conference Thursday, St. Paul Police Commander Mary Nash asked all victims of clergy sexual abuse to call police. "Based on this investigation and previous investigations, the St. Paul police department is seeking victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church," Nash said.

Nash wouldn't say why she took the rare step of asking victims of Catholic priests to call police. She declined to speculate on how many people she expected to step forward.

"We could have one, which is one too many," she said. "We could have 100. We will not know until people are comfortable enough to tell their story."

Nash said victims should call police at 651-291-1111.

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents abuse victims, said the news conference shows St. Paul police are worried victims may contact the archdiocese instead.

"I think it's an authentic law enforcement attempt to reach the survivors directly and to invite them to know that they can come to them directly and safely," Anderson said. "They can trust them and they probably shouldn't trust the archdiocese to handle this."

In a statement released after the news conference, the archdiocese said anyone who has been abused or suspects abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult should contact law enforcement first.