Thursday, October 3, 2013

Vicar general of St Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese resigns

Jeff Strickler
Minneapolis Star Tribune
October 3, 2013

A top lieutenant of Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned suddenly Thursday, saying his departure was necessary following an explosive court development that suggested the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis may have covered up a priest’s possession of child pornography.

The Rev. Peter Laird had served as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the archdiocese, making him junior only to Nienstedt in the hierarchy.

His resignation came shortly after allegations emerged in a St. Paul court that church officials knew a priest had been in possession of child pornography but continued to assign him to parish duties that brought him into contact with children. The allegations were contained in a St. Paul police report made public Thursday in Ramsey County District Court.

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a leading plaintiffs’ lawyer in pursuing cases against the archdiocese over child abuse, said the police report implies that the archdiocese destroyed evidence. The police report says that the archdiocese seized the evidence about the child pornography and kept it in a vault. When another diocesan official, Jennifer Haselberger, discovered the evidence, Laird told her to put it back in the vault, she told police.

Haselberger, who has since resigned, brought the matter to police attention. When the police went to the vault, the evidence of child pornography that they were told would be there was missing.

The archdiocese has been assailed by abuse victims and their advocates for years over the transfers of problem priests to new churches without parishioners being warned or past abuses revealed. The allegations have mirrored those in dioceses across the country in what has become an ongoing and, in some dioceses, financially crippling crisis for the American Catholic church.

Laird is now the highest official within the Twin Cities diocese to step down as a result of such allegations.

He was appointed to the vicar general position, which serves as an assistant to Nienstedt in administration of the archdiocese, in 2009.

He was not available for comment Thursday, but the archdiocese said that Laird’s resignation, which became effective immediately, “was his decision alone. He did nothing improper.”

In a written statement, Laird said he is hopeful that his decision “can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse. I know the leadership, the dedicated staff and my fellow priests in the Archdiocese are sincerely committed to proactively addressing these difficult issues.”

The pornography allegations made public Thursday date to 2003. But most of the police report focuses on events that have taken place in the last few months after officers were contacted by Haselberger, who held the rank of chancellor at the diocese and said she discovered the hidden evidence that Laird told her to return to the vault.

Haselberger also played a major role in a recent investigation of another priest by Minnesota Public Radio. The archdiocese won praise for quickly removing the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer of his duties when he was accused last year by a parishioner of sexually abusing children.

But apparently the archdiocese knew for more than a decade that Wehmeyer had issues with sexual compulsion yet kept him in the ministry and failed to warn parishioners, according to the MPR report, which cited Haselberger and dozens of other interviews and documents.

Wehmeyer is now serving a five-year prison term for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.


According to their report, the police found three computer discs holding adult pornography, which is legal. But the computer from which the discs were taken was missing.

Haselberger told police that the then-vicar general, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, said that when he saw the images on the computer, he believed them to be child pornography and ordered that all evidence, including the computer, be secured in a vault.

Haselberger also told police that she had seen a report from a private investigator, Richard Setter & Associates, which the archdiocese hired to examine the computer and its contents.

According to her, the report said that a forensic computer expert had examined the computer and found “thousands of images,” including some of a young boy performing oral sex on another male.

The police requested a copy of the computer report but were turned down by the archdiocese. As for the computer, “We were told that was destroyed,” the police report says.

Priest adamantly denies it

The priest who was accused of possessing the child pornography declined to comment Thursday night, referring questions to his attorney, Paul Engh.

“The good father adamantly denies ever viewing or downloading anything that would relate to child pornography,” Engh said.

Anderson contends the case involves at least three violations of the law.

“It’s illegal to view or possess child pornography,” he said. “It’s a violation of the law to keep evidence and not bring it to the attention of law enforcement. And it was violation of the law to destroy the computer.”

Anderson also accused the archdiocese of moral indiscretions. “This goes back to 2003. They’ve been sheltering this priest for 10 years, letting him continue in assignments that bring him in contact with children,” he said.


full article at the Star Tribune

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