Priest searched online for sexual images of children, according to police report

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

Documents released Tuesday by the St. Paul police department in a closed investigation show that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew in 2004 that a priest had searched online for sexual images of children.

Betrayed by Silence: An MPR News Investigation

The police file of the investigation into alleged child pornography on the computer of the Rev. Jon Shelley includes a 2004 report from a private forensic examiner who reviewed the images on Shelley's computer. It found that Shelley had searched the Internet for the terms "free naked boy pictures," "blond boys sucking pics" and "preteen." The examiner wrote the report for the archdiocese's private investigator, who gave it to the chancery in 2004, according to the police file.

The archdiocese kept Shelley in ministry despite the report's finding.

A spokesman for archdiocese declined to comment on why Shelley remained in ministry after church leaders learned he looked for pornographic images of minors. Shelley's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

MPR News reported in October of last year that top church officials debated for months in internal memos whether the images from Shelley's computer could be considered child pornography and concluded that they didn't need to call police.

Archbishop John Nienstedt acknowledged in a private meeting of priests in December that he looked at some of the images and didn't know if they depicted minors, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by MPR News. "Some of the images that were on Jon Shelley's computer, I couldn't tell if that was a 17-year-old or a 19-year-old. It was very difficult to be able to establish that, and I shouldn't have to do that. The St. Paul police should have to do that, which is what they did."

Police didn't learn of the images until last year, when Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese's chancellor for canonical affairs at the time, alerted the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. Haselberger resigned in April in protest of the archdiocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse. Two subsequent police investigations found no child pornography in the 1,303 images reviewed.

St. Paul Sgt. Bill Gillet wrote in his 2013 report that he would never know if he received all of the evidence. He noted that the archdiocese's attorneys provided several discs that they said contained copies of the images but the hard drive was missing. In January, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput declined to file criminal charges.

According to the police file released Tuesday, an officer who reviewed the images in 2013 found five images that he classified as "age difficult images, meaning that it was unclear to him whether or not the person(s) depicted in the images were adults."

Haselberger said she found the discs at the St. Paul chancery in late 2011 or early 2012. She said she notified Nienstedt in a memo and pointed him to a summary of the investigation that found the images "could be considered borderline illegal, because of the youthful-looking male image." That summary, which Haselberger said was written by private investigator Richard Setter in 2004, wasn't included in the police file released Tuesday.

Setter, who carried out investigations of priests for the archdiocese for more than a decade, told police that he had a policy of destroying records after five years and therefore no longer had his final report summarizing the investigation. Setter also said that he recently changed his policy and now destroys records after two years.

Nienstedt placed Shelley on a leave of absence in April 2013, a spokesman for the archdiocese said, after Haselberger notified law enforcement of the images. In a statement released late Tuesday, the archdiocese said that Shelley remains on a leave of absence "and is not involved in any ministry while the archdiocese continues to review this matter."

The spokesman declined to say what happened to the priest's hard drive. The police file released Tuesday said Setter told police that he dropped off the hard drive at the chancery on Oct. 21, 2004 after he completed his investigation.

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