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Under oath, whistleblower challenges Archbishop Nienstedt over abuse testimony

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Jennifer Haselberger
Jennifer Haselberger photographed Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 at her St. Paul home. She is the former top canon lawyer for the archdiocese. She resigned in April.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Updated 3 p.m.

Whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger, whose revelations of a clergy sexual abuse cover-up have rocked the Twin Cities archdiocese for the past 10 months, disputed the sworn testimony of Archbishop John Nienstedt in a damning 107-page affidavit filed as part of an abuse lawsuit Tuesday.

In her sworn statement, the former archdiocese chancellor also accused top church leaders of a "cavalier attitude" towards the safety of children, and contradicted sworn testimony by former top church deputies Peter Laird and Kevin McDonough and archdiocese attorney Andrew Eisenzimmer.

 

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

The affidavit comes at a critical time in a massive clergy sexual abuse lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona by attorney Jeff Anderson.

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of a man who says he was sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the 1970s, alleges the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. Church lawyers have asked Ramsey County Judge John Van de North to dismiss the lawsuit, and a hearing is scheduled for next Monday.

The case has already forced the depositions of  Nienstedt, former Archbishop Harry Flynn, St. Louis archbishop Robert Carlson, and other top officials. It's also  required church officials to turn over more than 60,000 pages of internal documents. Van de North had ordered church officials in December to disclose the names of abusive priests, as well. 

Haselberger's sweeping account offers an unprecedented look at how Catholic leaders handled clergy sexual abuse from 2008 to 2013. It appears to provide key evidence to back up Anderson's claim that the archdiocese has continued to put children at risk of sexual assault. And it comes as the archdiocese considers whether to file for bankruptcy as it faces an onslaught of abuse cases allowed under a state law that gives victims more time to sue.

In a statement, the archdiocese said Haselberger's "recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese" but that her "experience highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children."

Since Haselberger's exit, "we have begun the implementation of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force Recommendations which address some of the concerns she has raised," the archdiocese said, adding, "We continue to take concrete steps toward greater transparency and accountability in protecting children while offering hope and healing to victims."

Affidavit part of lawsuit

Anderson, who has represented thousands of victims of clergy sexual abuse over the past three decades, said he's never received such a detailed sworn statement about an ongoing cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy.

"We've never seen or had revealed to us the inner-workings of an archdiocese and top officials in real time," he said.

Most clergy abuse lawsuits rely on decades-old documents, testimony from a handful of experts on church law, and depositions from recalcitrant church officials and abusive priests. Top chancery officials rarely come forward to disclose the church's secrets. 

Anderson called the affidavit "historically important" in the history of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Haselberger resigned in April 2013 in protest over the archdiocese's handling of abuse cases. She contacted MPR News in July 2013 and disclosed how Nienstedt and other top officials gave special payments to abusive priests, failed to report alleged sex crimes to police and kept some abusers in ministry. Her account was especially  stunning because it involved decisions made by church leaders as recently as April 2013.

Haselberger's affidavit includes many of those claims.

She also describes an interview she gave to attorneys at the Greene Espel law firm earlier this year about Nienstedt. Haselberger said the firm was "hired by the Archdiocese in January or February of 2014 to investigate allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of Archbishop Nienstedt with seminarians, priests, and other adult men during Archbishop Nienstedt's time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis." 

She said that the lawyers wanted to know about Nienstedt's contact with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest in prison for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography. 

Haselberger had warned Nienstedt in 2009 of Wehmeyer's history of sexual interest in younger men, but Nienstedt decided to keep Wehmeyer in ministry and appointed him as pastor of two parishes. Wehmeyer's victims were the sons of an employee at one of those parishes.

Haselberger wrote: "I was told that one of the issues under investigation by Greene and Espel is whether the Archbishop had a personal and distinctly unprofessional relationship with Father Wehmeyer that may have influenced the Archbishop's decision to discard any warnings about Father Wehmeyer's prior conduct and the risk he posed." The affidavit also refers to private conversations at the chancery about other non-abuse related matters. 

Haselberger alleged that Nienstedt vowed to "take a more active and direct role in the hiring of school employees," even though archdiocese is supposed to operate as a legally separate organization. Haselberger said the conversation at the chancery about Catholic schools "suggests that such separation was little more than legal fiction."

Haselberger continued: "It was a constant struggle to keep the Archbishop and especially Father Laird within the bounds of their legal authority, and there were times when I was instructed by Father Laird to move ahead with an incorporation or, more frequently, to submit an entity for inclusion under the IRS Group Tax Exemption, when I believed that doing so was wrong."

The legal relationship of the archdiocese to Catholic schools and other institutions would be important if the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy. 

In bankruptcy proceedings in other dioceses, one of the key questions has been whether the church has correctly separated itself from other Catholic entities. If it hasn't, then a judge should decide that the assets of those schools or other institutions should be used to pay creditors in bankruptcy.

Haselberger also claimed that Laird, the former top deputy, "wanted the Archbishop to declare Father Michael Tegeder disabled as a means of silencing his opposition to the Archbishop's efforts to promote a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage."

Fr. Mike Tegeder
Fr. Mike Tegeder is pastor of St. Frances Cabrini parish in Minneapolis
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Tegeder has been a vocal critic of Nienstedt's emphasis on the constitutional amendment and has called for him several times to resign.

"It's bizarre," Tegeder said Tuesday. "But I'm not surprised by it. It's more craziness on their part. ... He should have been more concerned about Father Wehmeyer than myself. That's where the problem was."

Laird could not be immediately reached for comment.

Calls for resignation

Since MPR News first reported the cover-up, Nienstedt has created a task force to review the archdiocese's policies on abuse and hired a firm to review clergy files. Laird, his vicar general, resigned in early October.

Nienstedt has told his fellow priests that he's "not a quitter" and has no plans to resign. However, he faces pressure from top donors and prominent Catholics who doubt his ability to lead the archdiocese out of the scandal. 

Those calls for Nienstedt's resignation grew louder following an MPR News report Monday that found the abuse cover-up stretched back three decades.

"I would say if there's anything the laity can do, it's to speak with one voice to say as loudly as we can, 'The time has come to resign,'" major Catholic donor Jim Frey said Monday.

In the Catholic Church, only the pope has the authority to remove a bishop. Pope Francis has not commented publicly on Nienstedt's handling of abuse cases. 

Last week, in a homily at a Mass for victims of clergy sexual abuse, Pope Francis echoed a statement of Pope John Paul II in 2001 that "there is no place in the Church's ministry" for priests who abuse children. "All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable," Pope Francis said.

He did not explain how bishops would be held accountable, and some victims have expressed doubt that Pope Francis would remove bishops who have covered up abuse.

Earlier this year, Catholics in Kansas City petitioned the Vatican to remove Bishop Robert Finn, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2012 for failing to report an incident involving child pornography on a priest's computer. 

Haselberger disputes Nienstedt's testimony

In her affidavit, Haselberger, 39, described how Nienstedt and top advisors dismissed her concerns about the archdiocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.

She disputed Nienstedt's sworn testimony about payments to abusive priests and his knowledge of the scandal. Nienstedt had testified in April that he was "not aware" of Flynn's decision to declare the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson medically disabled because of his sexual abuse of a boy in the 1980s. 

An attorney for the archdiocese objected to questions about the payments because, he said, those decisions were made by insurers, not the archbishop.

Haselberger said that "not only is the Archbishop qualified to evaluate who can be classified as disabled, he is the only person who can make that evaluation."

She also disputed Nienstedt's testimony that he had not reviewed any files of abusive priests when deciding how to handle priests accused of misconduct. 

In March 2013, Nienstedt asked to review the complete file of the Rev. John Bussmann, a priest who was criminally convicted for sexual contact with at least one woman under his pastoral care, Haselberger said.

"Given the contents of Father Bussmann's file, which are excessive even relative to other priests guilty of misconduct, it is extremely unlikely that the Archbishop has forgotten that he reviewed it," she said in her affidavit.

Haselberger details decisions on abuse cases

Among Haselberger's other claims:

• Former vicar general Kevin McDonough ignored church rules on how to handle abuse allegations. "My experience of working with Father McDonough as well as my review of his work since 2001 led me to conclude that while he occasionally gave lip-service to these principles, he never accepted them and often failed to apply them," she wrote.

•  The archdiocese had violated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the national document approved by U.S. bishops amid the Boston abuse scandal in 2002. Auditors hired by the Catholic Church after the 2002 scandal "were not ever allowed access to our clergy records to determine if the data matched what we reported. 

Had they done so, they would have found out that it did not. On the day that I resigned in April of 2013, eleven years following the adoption of the Charter, the Archdiocese still had not secured the 'essential three' (background check, VIRTUS training, and signed Code of Conduct) for all of its diocesan priests," Haselberger wrote. VIRTUS training focuses on how to identify and prevent sexual abuse.

• The Archdiocese oversaw faulty private investigations of abuse claims. "The way in which the Archdiocese sought information from potential complainants was one factor that led me to the opinion, which I shared on several occasions with Chancery leadership, that when the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis 'investigated' something, it was always done in such a way as to ensure that we concluded the investigation with less clarity than we began with," she said.

• The Archdiocese did not report every abuse allegation to its clergy review board, despite public promises that it would do so. She cited allegations against the Rev. Gerald Grieman, which she said were not brought before the review board.

• Laird refused to listen to her concerns about alleged misconduct by the Rev. Joseph Gallatin, a priest who was removed from parish ministry earlier this year. Haselberger said she reviewed documents in Gallatin's file that showed he had a sexual interest in boys, as previously reported by MPR News, which has reviewed those documents.

"I literally followed Father Laird out of the building one evening with those highlighted documents in my hands, saying that if he didn't have time to read the whole documents, he could at least read the highlighted remarks. He refused," she said.

• The archdiocese declined to provide adequate funding to monitor abusive priests.

• The Rev. John Paul Erickson, a chancery official, knew of allegations of child sexual abuse by Wehmeyer and did not report it to police within 24 hours as required by state law. 

Haselberger ended her affidavit by calling for Nienstedt's resignation.

• Read the Haselberger affidavit