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Former chancellor: Twin Cities archdiocese 'far, far from best practice' on abuse

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After weeks of depositions from top officials exposing how they handled abusive priests and allegations that arose in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, sworn written testimony from a former chancellor pulled back the curtain further to reveal a system "far, far from best practice."

In a 107-page affidavit made public Tuesday, Jennifer Haselberger -- the canon lawyer whose leaking of documents and files promulgated the region's current abuse scandal -- disputed the accounts of her former coworkers and described in compelling detail the mistakes, oversights and omissions she witnessed during her tenure as chancellor of canonical affairs.

At one point, Haselberger characterized the archdiocese as having a "cavalier attitude towards the safety of other children."

The affidavit, released by attorney Jeff Anderson, was taken in relation to the John Doe 1 lawsuit against the Twin Cities archdiocese, the Winona, Minn., diocese and former priest Thomas Adamson. The next hearing is set for Monday. Anderson, pursuing a public nuisance charge against the archdiocese, told NCR the sworn statement is "a powerful recitation of whistleblowing and truth telling."

Among Haselberger's revelations:

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• A perceived pattern of incomplete investigations of sexual misconduct by Setter and Associates, a private firm frequently hired by the archdiocese, including in the Fr. Jonathan Shelley pornographic images case;

• A lax application of policies outlined by the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by former vicar general and safe environment delegate Fr. Kevin McDonough: "While he occasionally gave lip-service to these principles, he never accepted them and often failed to apply them";

• As of April 2013, the archdiocese had not secured the "essential three" forms required by the charter (background check, VIRTUS training, signed Code of Conduct) for all diocesan priests, and struggled to renew background checks;

• Charter auditors have never been allowed to access clergy records "to determine if the data matched what we reported. Had they done so, they would have found out that it did not";

• A records management system that had files spread out in different locations;

• An outdated and under-funded monitoring program for offending priests;

• Church officials impeding her investigations of priests and telling her to "stop looking under rocks."

In a statement on the archdiocese's website, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said Haselberger's "recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese. However, Ms. Haselberger's experience highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children." Cozzens said efforts to implement recommendations from an independent task force are addressing some of her concerns.

Haselberger served as chancellor from August 2008 until her resignation in April 2013. She previously worked for the archdiocese from 2004 until 2006 as a victim's advocate and judge on its metropolitan tribunal.

In contrast to the depositions of church officials who consistently used phrases like "I don't recall," Haselberger recounts events around more than a dozen priests, recalling at times the locations of various files, the name under which it was saved, and who placed what where. 

The affidavit weaves a story of Haselberger continually persisting that the archdiocese take some action in regard to a number of priests -- review their files, place them on a monitoring program, follow-up on their monitoring, remove them from a parish -- but was just as regularly rebuffed.

With one exception, she said: "I cannot recall a single time in which the concerns I raised resulted in action. … I became accustomed to having my advice disregarded." 

One suggestion addressed revamping the monitoring system employed by the archdiocese. While McDonough believed it "state of the art," Haselberger's experience attending seminars and developing systems for other dioceses led to her to conclude it inadequate. She criticized it for employing a "probationary model" that required quarterly or less check-ins, relied on self-reports from offending priests and had little mechanisms to verify information.

The lack of verification arose in spring 2013 when the monitoring director had concerns about Fr. Stan Maslowski -- a sex addict who used church funds to pay for strippers -- and his recent travels but had no way of proving the priest traveled where he said he did. The priest said he traveled to Branson, Mo., but didn't disclose trips to Nevada, which he mentioned in a Christmas card to Archbishop John Nienstedt.

Haselberger called that case "the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine,' which should have caused us to question whether we could expect to maintain any type of reasonable supervision over clergy offenders over the long term."

The failures of the system were further exposed by Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, she said, of whom she began issuing concerns as early as 2009.

The affidavit reiterated her claims that the archdiocese in June 2012 failed to report Wehmeyer within the required 24-hour window after it first learned of the allegations -- sexually abusing two boys and showing them pornography -- that eventually led to his conviction. Following Wehmeyer's arrest, Haselberger said no attempt was made to assess the archdiocese's response nor an admission of fault.

"No one was willing to take responsibility for the situation … or to engage in a discussion about what our moral responsibility was to the victims," she wrote.

From that point forward, she said her objections went unheard and her position became "tenuous."

Fr. Peter Laird, the vicar general who himself resigned in October, began to isolate her from certain meetings and attempted to intimidate and punish her, she said. That included a December 2012 suspension, which Haselberger challenged "had everything to do with my criticism of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse and my refusal to go along with policies and practices that were putting people at risk."

Haselberger spent nearly half of the affidavit responding to deposition testimony from Laird, whom she described as a careerist more focused on remodeling the chancery and expanding the communications office than safe environment problems.

In early 2013, Laird formed a safe environment working group to review sexual misconduct policies. She described the working group as "a way of appearing to be open to change, without the risk of having to implement any changes that may be unpalatable."

The group addressed issues such as graduating priests out of the monitoring program, or the lack of a list of monitored priests. But the format prevented real discussion, Haselberger wrote, in that it restricted the use of specific names or cases, an arrangement that frustrated her.

"I had absolutely no confidence that its work would result in any improvement in the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy," she said.

At one point, Joe Kueppers, the current civil chancellor, suggested the problem was not with the terms but her voice, and "that if I could speak in a more masculine octave, it might be easier for the other (male) group members to accept my arguments."

As for Nienstedt, Haselberger said she previously disagreed that the archbishop should resign, but that the recent investigation into sexual misconduct and his comments since last October have changed her mind. Specifically, she recalled Nienstedt's statement in December that he believed the issue of clergy sexual abuse was taken care of by the time he became archbishop in 2008 -- what Haselberger called a blatant lie.

"That was really when I abandoned hope that this situation could be resolved by the present administration, by which I mean not only the Archbishop, but everyone else who has been involved in this ongoing debacle," she wrote.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

This story appeared in the Aug 1-14, 2014 print issue under the headline: Affadavit details church failings in Twin Cities .

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