Catholic church lawyer details cover-up claims on sex abuse
Jennifer Haselberger, the highest-level official from a US diocese to make claims of a cover-up, is a canon law expert educated at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She alleges a cover-up is happening right now in Minnesota.
A canon lawyer alleging a widespread cover-up of clergy sex misconduct in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has made her most detailed claims yet, accusing archbishops and their top staff of lying to the public and of ignoring the US bishops' pledge to have no tolerance of priests who abuse.
Jennifer Haselberger, who spent five years as Archbishop John Nienstedt's archivist and top adviser on Roman Catholic church law, also charged that the church used a chaotic system of record-keeping that helped conceal the backgrounds of guilty priests who remained on assignment.
Haselberger said that when she started examining records in 2008 of clergy under restrictions over sex misconduct with adults and children she found "nearly 20" of the 48 men still in ministry. She said she repeatedly warned Nienstedt and his aides about the risk of these placements, but they took action only in one case. As a result of raising alarms, she said she was eventually shut out of meetings about priest misconduct. She resigned last year.
"Had there been any serious desire to implement change, it could have been done quickly and easily with the stroke of a single pen," Haselberger wrote in the affidavit, released Tuesday in a civil lawsuit brought by attorney Jeff Anderson. "The archbishop's administrative authority in his diocese is basically unlimited."
The archdiocese has for years pledged it was following the national bishops' policy, known as the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which lays out a series of requirements — from conducting background checks to alerting parishioners about offender priests and barring guilty clergy from parish assignments. Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the Minneapolis archdiocese until retiring in 2008, was an architect of the 12-year-old plan.
But Haselberger said she discovered in 2008 that the archdiocese hadn't conducted background checks on most priests since the early 1990s. When she drew attention to the lapse, she said she was told to eliminate references to the date of background checks in a form pledging a priest is suitable for ministry.
Haselberger said scattered among storage locations throughout the archdiocese, she found priests' records, including the history of allegations against them, their compliance with the monitoring program, and evidence of their misconduct. "The presence of so many files in so many different locations meant that often important information did not make its way into the priest's personnel file," she said.
She also said the archdiocese gave inaccurate information to auditors hired by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to monitor dioceses' compliance with the child protection plan. Haselberger noted the auditors didn't have access to church files to check whether the archdiocese's report matched the records. "They would have found out that it did not," she said.
Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said in a statement that Haselberger's "recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese." He said the archdiocese was taking steps toward "greater transparency and accountability."
Since the clergy abuse scandal began in 1984, then erupted into a national crisis in 2002, the American church has been flooded with revelations — from civil lawsuits, grand jury inquiries and the bishops' own research — about how dioceses consistently put the interests of the church above victims. Still, Haselberger's accusations stand out because of her credentials and timing.
She is the highest-level official from a US diocese to make claims of a cover-up. A canon lawyer educated at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, she served as a judge on church tribunals in Minnesota and was trained through the US bishops' conference on child safety and monitoring guilty clergy.
Also, Haselberger is coming forward in what Anderson calls "real time." The bulk of previous disclosures about US bishops sheltering abusers had been made years, if not decades, after the wrongdoing. Haselberger alleges a cover-up is happening now in Minnesota.
When Haselberger's allegations were first made public, in a series of reports last September by Minnesota Public Radio, the archdiocese initially defended its record on preventing abuse. Since then, Nienstedt has apologized for any mistakes and said in a deposition he hid some information on accused clergy from police. A task force Nienstedt formed to review how the archdiocese handled abuse claims released a report in April conceding "serious shortcomings" by church officials.
Haselberger said the Rev. Kevin McDonough — the archdiocese's vicar general or top aide for 17 years, and brother of White House chief of staff Denis McDonough — never accepted the discipline plan American bishops adopted in 2002 that streamlined church law so guilty priests could be barred from ministry or removed from the priesthood altogether.
McDonough continued his previous approach of striking agreements with accused offenders to remain priests but stay away, sometimes providing them extra payments to do so. McDonough oversaw clergy misconduct cases until last September.
"He explained to me his position that dismissal wasn't the right solution for the church," Haselberger wrote.
McDonough had called the archdiocese's monitoring system for priests guilty of sex misconduct "state of the art," Haselberger said. However, she said the program relied heavily on self-reporting by the guilty priests with no verification of what they reported. In one example, she said the Rev. Robert Kapoun, accused of molesting several young boys, is enrolled in the monitoring program, but spends the winter months in Florida without oversight.
Another priest, just out of prison after he had been convicted of victimizing an adult woman during counseling, was placed in a retired priests' home where minors worked. Haselberger said the archdiocese learned of the problem from the priest's probation officer. When the top Nienstedt lieutenant, the Rev. Peter Laird, learned about the problem, he said the young people should be fired, Haselberger said. Laird resigned as vicar general last September. He did not respond Tuesday to an email request for comment.
Nienstedt meanwhile announced July 1 that allegations had been made against him several months ago of inappropriate sexual behavior and he had hired a firm to investigate. Nienstedt told the Catholic magazine Commonweal he never engaged in sexual misconduct, nor had he made any sexual advances. Haselberger told Commonweal that she was interviewed by the firm, and investigators have about 10 sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety by Nienstedt.
Last year, Minnesota lawmakers temporarily abolished time limits on civil lawsuits over child sex abuse, for three years. Similar windows for lawsuits in other states have resulted in total payouts by dioceses in the tens of millions of dollars and more.
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