MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —Attorneys for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis were seeking to put out a fire, not start a new one, when they asked a judge this month to keep private a list of Roman Catholic clergy believed to have molested children.
The court proceeding produced no definitive ruling on whether that document would be released, as victims are seeking, but it did reveal new details that intensified the crisis.
A judge entered into the public record a police report church attorneys had cited about a priest’s cache of porn kept in church archives for eight years, unleashing a cascade of new revelations about how the archdiocese responded when confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct.
In the days leading up to the Oct. 3 hearing, church officials already were fending off a canon lawyer who quit the archdiocese and was now accusing administrators of ignoring warnings in the last several years about at least two priests.
But with the latest disclosure, local police are investigating, prosecutors are getting involved, the top aide to Archbishop John Nienstedt has resigned from his leadership post, and the actions of a longtime high-ranking church administrator and a former archbishop are being called into question. Nienstedt set up a committee to conduct a review he hopes will restore trust that the archdiocese is following the U.S. bishops’ 2002 toughened policy on abuse.
“I think what it shows is how structural the problem is — that the problem does really go beyond something that is easily fixed simply by resolutions and handling things in a different way,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who has advised church officials in Boston and elsewhere on stopping clergy abuse.
The Minneapolis archdiocese insists it has a strong record of preventing sexual misconduct.
“The information in the media is incomplete because it has been presented without context,” Jim Accurso, the archbishop’s spokesman, wrote in an email, declining to comment on specifics amid the committee’s review.
The police report made public in the court hearing detailed investigators’ attempts, starting last March, to obtain computer discs of porn held in the archdiocese’s records. The investigators’ report, combined with information in internal church memos obtained by Minnesota Public Radio News, draw a picture of administrators debating the technicalities about whether any of the hundreds of lewd images belonging to the priest, the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, meet the legal definition for child porn.
The photos were discovered in 2004 on Shelley’s laptop by a man who bought the computer at a rummage sale. An investigator hired by the archdiocese at the time had said some of the images were “borderline” illegal, according to church memos. But the archdiocese, led then by Archbishop Harry Flynn, didn’t bring the images to police.
Shelley remained in ministry until he was put on leave last year. Images from his computer had been stored on discs in the archive where the archdiocese kept its records. The canon lawyer who quit in protest, Jennifer Haselberger, found the discs last year and eventually alerted authorities.
In the documents obtained by MPR, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who had spent 17 years as the vicar general, or top aide, in the archdiocese, wrote that he had reviewed many of the images and found most were of adults. He concluded four likely were of minors and not pornographic but pop-up ads to view child pornography.
McDonough said he assumed Shelley hadn’t clicked on the ads, because doing so would have surely drawn the attention of police, who scoured the Web for offenders. McDonough served as the archdiocese child safety officer until he left the post this summer. Accurso says McDonough’s departure had long been planned and was not related to the Shelley case.
Nienstedt drafted a letter to the Vatican in May saying: “My staff has expressed concern that the fact that CD-ROMs containing the images remain in the cleric’s personnel file could expose the archdiocese, as well as myself, to criminal prosecution.” Haselberger said church officials told her the letter, obtained by MPR, was never sent.
Police wrote in their report that they eventually obtained discs of Shelley’s porn from lawyers for the archdiocese and found no child pornography. But police reopened the investigation this week, after receiving new information.
Attorney Thomas Wieser, who represented the archdiocese in the Oct. 3 court hearing, did not respond to a request for comment about why he cited the police report. Paul Engh, a lawyer for Shelley, said the archdiocese hadn’t intended the document to become part of the record. Engh, who participated in the hearing, said the aim was to show the judge that the list of accused clergy could include priests who are innocent.
Thomas Plante, a psychologist who counsels sex offender priests and has served on the bishops’ National Review Board, an advisory panel on child safety, said discipline is clearly required for priests who view lewd images of children. Many clergy administrators are “naive” about how easily porn can be accessed online and he has urged them, when in doubt, to go to law enforcement.
The Shelley case has resonated beyond Minneapolis in part because of the similarities with recent problems in other dioceses.
In the Missouri Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of misdemeanor failure to report because he waited several months before notifying police about hundreds of images of small children, some pornographic, found on a priest’s laptop.
The bishop also acknowledged that a parish principal raised concerns about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s behavior around children in May 2010, half a year before the photos were found. Ratigan was convicted and is in federal prison. Finn remains head of the diocese.
“There are very strong structural forces to protect the reputation of the church, to protect priests from exposure to civil and criminal authorities because of the kind of identification one feels with them, and to handle things in a kind of legalistic way. Those are problems that have cropped up again and again in different places,” Finkelhor said.
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