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Co. attorney: No charges for priest in child pornography investigation

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

The Washington County Attorney's Office has declined to press charges against a priest accused of possessing child pornography.

St. Paul police reopened their case into the Rev. Jonathan Shelley in October after receiving a copy of computer files that once belonged to him.

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said there was insufficient evidence on the disks to warrant criminal charges against Shelley, who in recent years served at parishes in Hugo and Mahtomedi.

The files were analyzed by police investigators, the Justice Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and county prosecutors, Orput said.

• VIDEO INTERVIEW: St. Paul police chief says victims come first in clergy abuse investigation (Jan. 29, 2014)

"We've declined to prosecute the case, as there's no criminal evidence we can find."

"Everyone who's looked at it says there's no child pornography on those disks," he said. "We've declined to prosecute the case, as there's no criminal evidence we can find."

• Previous coverage: New documents show church leaders debated legality of priest's pornography (Oct. 7, 2013)

Police didn't learn of the pornographic images until February of 2013, when Jennifer Haselberger, then a top adviser to Archbishop John Nienstedt, reported the images to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. Haselberger resigned two months later in protest of the archdiocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations.

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

The first investigation by St. Paul police found no child pornography, but lead investigator Sgt. William Gillet cast doubt on the findings. He noted that police never found the actual computer and had to rely on discs from the archdiocese. 

"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," he wrote.

Gillet retired last year.

Police reopened the case after MPR News reported that the archdiocese's top leaders debated whether some of the images could be considered child pornography.

• Previous coverage: Archdiocese didn't report priest's pornography, former official says (Oct. 4, 2013)

DEBATE AT THE CHANCERY

The archdiocese's internal memos show church leaders debated for months whether the images could be considered child pornography.

Haselberger, the former chancellor for canonical affairs, said she uncovered several computer discs and a white three-ring binder while working at the chancery in St. Paul. It was evidence from a 2004 internal investigation of sexually explicit images found on the computer of the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, then pastor of St. Jude of the Lake church in Mahtomedi, Minn.

Haselberger notified Nienstedt of the evidence, which included the original report from a private investigator that found that many of the depictions "could be considered borderline illegal, because of the youthful-looking male image."

Haselberger also looked at many of the images on the disks. She told MPR News that some of the images depicted shirtless boys and others included phrases like "live teen boys from Eastern Europe" or showed a boy performing oral sex. Some depicted adults but appeared to be staged in schools, she said.

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation

Former vicar general Kevin McDonough acknowledged in a Jan. 27, 2013 memo to Nienstedt and other top officials that he saw four images of children among the files. However, McDonough wrote, "the images themselves were not pornographic, but enticements to take a further step to view pornography. Second, they appear to be the sorts of advertisements that 'pop up' on the Internet. Were Father Shelley to have clicked on such advertisements, he would likely have been caught in a law-enforcement sting." 

OTHER CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE CASES

Charging decisions are also expected later this morning in the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the 2012 criminal prosecution of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer.

At a news conference at 10 a.m. today, law enforcement officials will discuss "when information came to be known to law enforcement in the criminal prosecution" of the priest, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to three counts of criminal sexual conduct and 17 counts of possession of child pornography.

Police have also been looking into an allegation that Archbishop John Nienstedt inappropriately touched a boy on the buttocks in 2009. Nienstedt removed himself from public ministry last month, after the archdiocese encouraged a person within the Catholic Church who is required by law to report allegations of abuse to contact law enforcement.

Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News investigation