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Former Twin Cities vicar general twice suggested archbishop resign

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A former top official on two separate occasions advised St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt to resign in response to accusations of mishandled clergy sex abuse allegations. While Nienstedt has not done so, Fr. Peter Laird heeded his own counsel.

In a deposition made public May 28, the former vicar general explained he met for about five minutes with Nienstedt Sept. 23 following a Minnesota Public Radio report that alleged the archdiocese mishandled child abuse claims. Laird intended to outline possible options to take in response to the situation.

He suggested having an outside review of archdiocesan files and appointing an external task force to examine existing policies -- both steps taken in the months that followed.

Laird, vicar general from November 2009 until October 2013, also suggested the archbishop’s resignation.

It’s the responsibility of any leader in any organization, he explained to attorney Jeff Anderson, “to be accountable for the work that they’ve done, whether they -- it happened under their tenure or not.”

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“I do think that leaders should consider how they continue to lead and sometimes leadership leads by being accountable and offering a resignation,” said Laird, believing that such a move by the archdiocese’s top leadership would signify trust and transparency.

Laird spoke with Anderson May 12 regarding a civil lawsuit brought by John Doe 1 against former priest Thomas Adamson, the Twin cities archdiocese and the Winona, Minn., diocese. Both Anderson and the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese posted the deposition on their websites.

The former vicar general said Nienstedt did not give a particular reaction when he mentioned resignation, nor did he signal whether it was a realistic option or not. The goal at that point, Laird explained, was not to make a decision but to examine possibilities.

One decision, however, was made -- to release a press statement later that day. While Laird believed a direct response attributed to Nienstedt “would be the best approach,” the statement came from the archdiocese as a whole.

On Oct. 3, he would meet briefly with Nienstedt again, this time to inform him of his own resignation. Nienstedt responded “this is not the time,” recalled Laird, who made the decision nonetheless believing the most important thing was to re-establish trust in the archdiocese and to signal “that this is taken seriously.”

Laird, a trained civil lawyer, was content with the counsel he offered, and acknowledged he was part of the leadership team in question. He described his decision to resign as a step to re-establish trust, and “as a step that I thought needed to be taken to demonstrate to our various constituents, especially people who have been abused by priests … that the most important thing was going to be able to move forward in a way that would be transparent and that would be accountable.”

At that meeting, Laird also revisited the options he previously outlined for the archdiocese, including Nienstedt’s own resignation. He conveyed to the archbishop that how the archdiocese reacts would demonstrate its credibility and accountability, given that the news reports renewed worries and concerns.

“It had become clear and apparent to me,” Laird said, “… how the archdiocese responded to this situation was going to be a defining moment for the archdiocese.”

Like in the depositions of Nienstedt and Fr. Kevin McDonough, another former vicar general and Laird’s predecessor, the attorney Anderson spent much of his time with the priest asking questions related to Frs. Curtis Wehmeyer and Jonathan Shelley, two priests prominent in the allegations scandal. As with the previous depositions, questions concerning the accused Adamson were few.

Wehmeyer is presently serving a five-year prison sentence for criminal sexual assault and possession of child pornography in relation to sexually abusing two boys. Shelley was accused of having accessed child pornography among thousands of pornographic images found on his computer in 2004. A January investigation by the Washington County prosecutor found that the images did not meet the statutory definition of “pornographic work involving a minor.”

Laird told Anderson he did not personally examine images that sparked concern for Jennifer Haselberger, the chancellor for canonical affairs who discovered them while reviewing Shelley’s file. He also did not review the report, instead going off of information provided by civil affairs chancellor Andy Eisenzimmer. According to Laird, the results of his fact-finding appeared at the time to satisfy Haselberger, who resigned in April 2013, and that if she still saw it as an issue, he told her to report to police herself.

As for Wehmeyer, Laird said he learned June 20, 2012, from one of the chancellors of the claim that led to the priest’s eventual arrest, but initially was unaware it was Wehmeyer accused because the information remained in a privileged state. When Anderson asked how either chancellor could have learned of an accusation revealed under the priest-penitent privilege, Laird responded he did not know.

Laird said he relayed the information he had to Nienstedt as soon as possible, and put his staff “on notice that as soon as we’re able, we need to report this.” The privilege was relaxed later that day, and the report given to law enforcement “within hours, maybe even within the hour of the privilege being revoked,” according to Laird, who believed either Eisenzimmer or Deacon John Vomastek, a retired police officer, contacted the police.

The timeline of reporting has been a central element of each of the depositions Anderson has taken of archdiocesan leadership. Minnesota laws allow a 24-hour window for reporting alleged abuse. Accounts from individuals and police reports have conflicted about when the archdiocese first learned of the abuse by Wehmeyer, with some internal documents suggesting it learned as early as June 18, 2012.

In January, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi determined the archdiocese fulfilled its reporting duties in appropriate time, but the case has since been reopened.

While Laird said “there was nothing raised about [Wehmeyer] being a child predator,” prior to the June 2012 accusation, he had concerns about his suitability for ministry related to reports of sexual advances toward adult males, drinking problems and issues with parishioners and his staff.

When Haselberger brought concerns about Wehmeyer’s pending appointment as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church -- the site of his eventual abuse -- Laird said he had already concluded against the assignment. He made that recommendation to Nienstedt, who ultimately made Wehmeyer pastor.

In a memo to Nienstedt written Sept. 28, 2013, days before his resignation, Laird stated “unless you are planning to publicly clarify what advice you received … from me regarding Wehmeyer, I would like, for my personal files, a written acknowledgement from you on my role; that I counseled against Wehmeyer being in active ministry much less serving as a pastor.”

He continued: “I believe it is in accord with justice as many believe I was complicit in your decision.”

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

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