MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) — The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is creating an independent task force to investigate the way church officials have handled accusations of priest misconduct, after one pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct last year and another was recently accused of having child pornography.
In a statement Sunday, Archbishop John Nienstedt said addressing these serious allegations are a “top priority.”
“These allegations must be addressed urgently, transparently and with truly independent review,” Nienstedt said.
This news comes as yet another victim came forward Monday to say church leaders failed to adequately investigate his allegations of abuse.
Frank Meurs said he was molested in the 1960s, and when he reported the abuse in 2010 he says the archdiocese took nine months to get back to him.
Nienstedt appointed the Rev. Reginald Whitt, a Dominican priest from the University of St. Thomas law school, to lead the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force, which will be made up of at least six lay people appointed by Whitt. Whitt will not be a member.
The task force will review all issues related to allegations of clergy sexual misconduct by conducting interviews and looking at archdiocese documents related to policies and procedures for preventing, investigating and responding to sexual misconduct by clergy, the archdiocese said. The group, whose members are expected to be named by Wednesday, will come up with recommendations to ensure the archdiocese has effective policies.
Nienstedt first mentioned the creation of the task force on Sept. 27, nearly one year after the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was convicted of sexually abusing two brothers while pastor at The Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. Nienstedt announced specifics about the task force Sunday, days after another priest was accused of possessing child pornography years ago, and the archdiocese’s top deputy resigned last week.
The archdiocese said the Rev. Peter Laird’s resignation as vicar general on Thursday had nothing to do with Wehmeyer’s case.
Former archdiocese employee Jennifer Haselberger issued a statement Saturday calling for an external review of priest files. She resigned from her job as chancellor for canonical affairs in April because of concerns about the way sexual abuse allegations were handled.
Haselberger said she not only talked to church officials about Wehmeyer years ago, but that the archdiocese also failed to report what she believed to be child pornography to police, so she went to authorities herself.
Jeff Anderson, the attorney who deposed Haselberger, echoed her statement.
“[Haselberger] was told by the archbishop and top officials ‘leave it alone, put it back and cover it up,’” Anderson said.
The St. Paul Police report says the second priest was not charged because they found no child pornography. Anderson claims the archdiocese did not turn over all the evidence.
“That evidence has been destroyed according to the accounts of Jennifer Haselberger,” he said.
An attorney for the archdiocese said Friday that neither police investigators nor a computer forensics expert found evidence to support her child pornography allegations.
In an email response to a question from The Associated Press, Haselberger said Monday she has a great deal of respect for Whitt.
“At the same time, I believe that a comprehensive, external review of ALL clergy files is essential, followed by the removal from ministry and publication of the names of those who have been determined to have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct, as well as those whom could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children and young people,” she wrote.
Nienstedt said the task force will operate independently and have full authority and resources to complete its work. Its findings and recommendations will be released publicly when the final report is complete. A timetable was not given.
“There can be no room for misconduct among our clergy and our standard must be zero tolerance for abuse of minors and vulnerable adults,” Nienstedt said. “We hold a sacred trust. Our very vocation requires the highest standard of conduct so that all may be drawn to the person of Jesus Christ through our witness.”
David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, or Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests, says Nienstedt’s response is boiler plate in nature.
“This is the standard PR response by every U.S. bishop when he has been caught in the last decade or longer concealing child sex crimes,” Clohessy said.
The archbishop has not yet issued a statement on his handling of the case of the second priest, who WCCO is not naming because he has not been charged.
Jennifer Hasselberger could not be reached for further comment.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is home to about 825,000 Catholics and encompasses 188 parishes in 12 counties.