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Catholic Bishops As Fifth Columnists In War On Religious Liberty

A reader sends along the sworn affidavit of Jennifer Haselberger (PDF), from 2008-2013 the chief canon lawyer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It’s part of a civil lawsuit having to do with alleged clerical sexual abuse in that archdiocese, and the conduct of its archbishop, John Nienstedt. Learning how the sausage […]

A reader sends along the sworn affidavit of Jennifer Haselberger (PDF), from 2008-2013 the chief canon lawyer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It’s part of a civil lawsuit having to do with alleged clerical sexual abuse in that archdiocese, and the conduct of its archbishop, John Nienstedt.

Learning how the sausage is made in the Minneapolis archdiocese makes for sobering reading. For starters, she said that shortly after she was hired by the archdiocesan marriage tribunal, she learned that the priest leading it, Father Conlin, had been taken out of parish ministry because he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a married woman — a woman that some believed he had been counseling when he got her pregnant. Haselberger said she was shocked to discover this, and even more shocked when she learned that the archbishop and many other canon lawyers knew about it before the priest was appointed to lead the tribunal — a position in which he would be leading decision-making about the validity of marriages, and dealing with emotionally vulnerable men and women. Haselberger testified that she wanted to quit her job, but another canon lawyer told her that if she did, people would think that she was the woman carrying Father Conlin’s baby, and that it would hurt her ability to find another canon law position.

When she eventually left the archdiocese for the first time, in her exit interview she talked about how the archdiocese’s toleration of moral corruption by priests on the tribunal hurt the morale of its lay employees. At that time, Harry Flynn was the Minneapolis archbishop — and tolerated all this even as he was chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ sexual abuse task force. 

She returned to the archdiocese as chancellor under Flynn’s successor, Abp John Nienstedt. In this role, Haselberger was shocked to discover how so much of the archdiocese’s public statements of reform and concern for victims were nothing more than window dressing, and how it had actually continued to cover for some sexually abusive priests. This passage made my heart sink (deletions are in the affidavit):

[Priest] was dismissed for sexual misconduct with multiple women, including one who was under the age of eighteen, as well as for the canonical crimes of absolving his victims of sins against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue in which he was a participant, and soliciting women to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue [“Thou shalt not commit adultery” — RD] in the act of, on the occasion of, or under the pretext of confession.

Many of these crimes had originally been reported in the 1990s, following which Father was sent to the Sex Offender Treatment Program at the University of Minnesota. I returned to the Archdiocese to execute the rescript because, although his own bishop was unwilling to give him further ministerial assignments, Father had been permitted to minister in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis after and even during the period in which he was enrolled in the sex offender treatment program, and, in fact was quite active in the local movement [name of movement deleted] despite having engaged his victims in sexual acts during [word deleted] retreats.

I was, and remain, deeply impacted by the suffering caused by Father in part because it was the first case that I worked on that involved a victim who committed suicide, but also because of the link between his crimes and the sacraments of the Church.

According to Haselberger’s affidavit, the Minneapolis archdiocese’s vicar general, Fr. Kevin McDonough, was responsible for this and other reassignments, in violation of the 2002 Charter that forbade them. (She confronted the sex offender priest in 2006.) McDonough simply didn’t think the Charter was right, she testified, and took the side of protecting the accused priest’s position, even against stated church policy. Haselberger says the vicar general’s open defiance of the norms has a lot to do with why the archdiocese finds itself in so much trouble today.

She goes on to testify that the archdiocese’s investigations of accused personnel were more or less shams designed not to find incriminating information — and in one case in which she herself, as chancellor, was investigating a priest’s involvement with a prostitute (get this: the pimp had called the chancery complaining that his ho hadn’t been paid!), the vicar general at the time, a Father Laird, did everything he could to block her inquiry. The archdiocese, she further said, had terrible record-keeping, with the archbishop and others keeping vital files out of the hands of those who needed them to do their work. She speaks of a 2013 meeting at which Nienstedt and vicar generals discussed the unsuitability of a lay Catholic school principal to run a Catholic school in the archdiocese, given that he had not gone to Catholic school — this, despite the fact that they had no problem letting a Father Gallatin, who had an admitted attraction to teenage boys, administer a parish middle school. Haselberger calls this the epitome of “the Archdiocese’s cavalier attitude towards the safety of other people’s children.” She also alleges that the archdiocese’s “Safe Environment Working Group” on sexual misconduct was designed more to give the appearance of change without actually changing anything.

In fact, she says what drove her to quit in anger was realizing how little the archdiocese cared about protecting children, only protecting priests — even priests they knew were guilty — and how vulnerable children were. She says that Archbishop Nienstedt was such a micromanager that he would send stern notes (“nastygrams”) to chancery employees for such petty offenses as leaving the lights on, or not wearing a tie — but when it came to dealing with clerical sexual misconduct, he was seemingly indifferent.

Look at this, having to do with a request by a priest to be incardinated (that is, canonically received) into the archdiocese:

Both Andy and I were dismayed that Archbishop Nienstedt was even considering this, because taking on responsibility for [priest] was obviously a very risky proposition, especially because of the previous incident involving young males. Moreover, the decision to incardinate would make the Archdiocese responsible for his pension plan and other retirement related expenses, which would create a large unfunded liability to a pension plan that was already significantly underfunded.

However, [Auxiliary] Bishop [Lee] Piché was advocating for incardination, and so the Archbishop requested his personnel file from the [unspecified] Diocese, as is required by the Archdiocesan policy on the incardination of priests.

To its credit, in responding to Archbishop Nienstedt’s request, the Diocese sent the complete personnel file of Father [name], which included, as I recall, more than one page of photos of Father engaging in what I will describe as “romantic activities” with other men. When this file arrived, I personally delivered it to the Archbishop, an action that brought more criticism from Bishop Piché, who didn’t think that the material should have been presented to the Archbishop since “those issues had been resolved.”

Those issues had not been resolved, nor have they been. Since [priest] was incardinated in 2012, I have learned of additional incidents of Father making inappropriate advances towards young (adult) males who attended his parish. I question how the Archbishop could claim not to remember reviewing Father [name’s] file, and especially those pictures, given that this occurred in 2011, during the Archbishop’s campaign to pass the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. [Emphasis mine — RD]

There is so much more here, if you can bear to read the whole thing. Remember, Haselberger wasn’t a low-level employee, but the chancellor of the entire archdiocese. She left in disgust, and became a whistleblower. Despite it all, and even after her resignation, she testifies that she felt that Nienstedt should not resign — until she was interviewed this past April as part of an independent investigation into allegations that Nienstedt has spent his priestly career being sexually active. She says she was told one thing the investigators are looking into is whether or not then Father Nienstedt had previously had a sexual relationship with Father Curtis Wehmeyer, who was last year convicted of molesting boys in his parish, and sent to prison. Though the archdiocese had long known that Wehmeyer was sexually out of control, Nienstedt still assigned him to a parish.

Haselberger’s blockbuster deposition, released today, is part of a civil suit against the archdiocese. If you don’t want to read the entire affidavit, read Minnesota Public Radio’s report on it, which hits the highlights. Keep in mind most of the things she talks about didn’t happen in the Bad Old Days, prior to 2002, but since then — and as recently as last year.

If Haselberger is telling the truth, it staggers the mind to think that Pope Francis — who has the right to remove Nienstedt — tolerates this man remaining in charge a single day longer. Then again, Bishop Finn still rules in Kansas City, and according to a comprehensive report done by BishopAccountability.org, the pope had a poor record on responding to abuse as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

As a non-Catholic, I read this story, and think about how religious liberty in this country is now under assault, especially how right here in Louisiana, the seal of the confessional is severely threatened by ongoing litigation. And I think about how the archbishops of Minneapolis-St. Paul have behaved, saying one thing to reassure the public, but in fact behaving in exactly the opposite way, doing whatever they could to protect the clericalist mafia, and to marginalize Catholics like Jennifer Haselberger, who only wanted the Church to be the Church. I think about how the archdiocese appointed a priest who — if Haselberger is telling the truth (and as chancellor, had access to his personnel file) — had used the confessional as a way to facilitate an adulterous relationship.

I think of this, and it is not hard for me to understand why people have so little sympathy for religious liberty claims. They believe religious liberty is an excuse to let cretins like Archbishop Nienstedt and his minions get away with serving themselves, their careers, and their perverse sexual appetites. Just yesterday, I was speaking to a Protestant friend about the seal of the confessional controversy, and he said something to the effect of, “In this environment, there’s no way people are going to be predisposed to support the Church on this.”

He’s right. In the present and future war on religious liberty — a war that affects all religious believers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike — the US Catholic hierarchy all too often behaves like a fifth column.

I can hardly express how discouraging all this.

UPDATE: A reader who comments anonymously, but whose identity I know, so I can confirm that he speaks from experience, writes:

I read about 2/3 of the affidavit, still plugging along but needed to process 2 things.

first … Having worked in a Catholic diocese for 2 years in a similar role, her stories about the interactions between the clergy & lay employees ring true. Loyalty is rewarded, clergy are protective of each other’s privacy & peccadillos. She really understands this culture, and the frustration with seeing a naked emporer and being asked to give a favorable fashion review.

And … The blatant cover-ups, disregard for both civil and canon law, and disrepect for victims is not AT ALL consistent with my experience. All victims were listened to … Face to face and on their terms … And encouraged to contact police. Information was shared as needed between canonical, legal, advocacy, and supervisory parties. Investigations were professional and then reviewed by a highly qualified lay review board. Police reports were made, priests were defrocked, and the community was notified if an allegation proved true.

No, it was not a perfect system, but there was a system, and it was run by qualified and compassionate people. When i dealt with other diocese or religious orders, most were organized & trying hard to deal with these impossibly difficult cases. Some were understaffed or naive; others appeared willfully defiant when “doing the right thing” seemed obvious.

I am out of it now, and praying that Minn/St Paul is an aberration. In any case I would not be too quick to dismiss this testimony – Ms. Haselberger seems to have really been on the inside of a real mess.

How are laypeople supposed to know when their diocese is doing the right thing, as this reader’s diocese was, and just putting on a show, as the Minneapolis diocese apparently was? The fraudulence of one diocese, especially a big one like Mpls, dramatically undermines the good-faith efforts of other dioceses. I know I’m especially sensitive about this, based on what I’ve seen, but after all I’ve seen, it is impossible for me to trust any church — Catholic and non-Catholic, including my own — to do the right thing in these cases. I assume, until proven otherwise, that they think victims and the laity are the Enemy. I’m sure that isn’t true, but how is one supposed to know? Why should we trust any church authority on this issue?

UPDATE.2: A priest writes (anonymously; I know he’s a priest because we’ve corresponded privately) in the comboxes:

Thank you for sharing this. If there is one small point of light, it focuses on the lay chancellor. In my experience, the laity, especially trained professionals such as lawyers, frequently do bring a de-clericalizing attitude to the administration of the Church. I hope that we see more of that, especially as degrees in Canon Law are becoming more common for laypersons.

I think it’s important that non-Catholics and even members of the laity understand that not all priests are on board with the culture of clericalism and cover-up in their chanceries and dioceses. Over the years, some of my best sources for writing about what’s really going on have been priests who despise it, but are powerless to stop it. Yet they suffer too, in part because so many people assume that they’re on board with the coverups and such. It should also be noted that there are many in the laity who still, to this day, support the culture of cover-up, for their own pietistic and psychological reasons. The line between good and evil in the Catholic Church (and any other church) does not run between clergy and laity.

By the way, this all reminded me of a story a laicized priest (he left to be with his boyfriend) of my acquaintance told me about his burnout in the ministry. He said that a decade or so ago, one of the priests of his diocese had been arrested for having child porn on his computer (a repairman had discovered it while working on the hard drive, and called the police). The bishop called his priests together to talk about it. His first words to them, according to my ex-priest friend, were along the lines of, “If you have anything compromising on your computer, throw the thing in the river if you have to, but just get rid of it.” The bishop did not say, “Come to me, I will help you get help with this problem,” or anything like that. He was all about “destroy the evidence before you get caught and cause me problems.” That was a turning point for my friend, who said he just couldn’t take the hypocrisy and cynicism anymore. He is now laicized and legally married to his then-boyfriend. His bishop went on to become a big deal figure in the US Catholic Church.



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