By Rubén Rosario
NOTE: This op-ed was first published July 20, 2014 by The Pioneer Press.
I picked up a summer must-read this past week. It has drama, conflict, intrigue and zips along at 107 pages.
No. It's not Invisible by James Patterson, though I really wish it were fiction. This read has a decidedly boring title: "Affidavit of Jennifer M. Haselberger."
It should be retitled "The Archdiocese That Forgot Christ," for this is really what it is: a scathing account of how top church officials from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis put kids and adults at risk.
It is the best argument yet, since the local clergy abuse and mismanagement scandal broke months ago, that Archbishop John Nienstedt should step down or if he refuses, be removed from his post.
I'm not saying this lightly.
He is, as Haselberger told me, "my archbishop." But he needs to go for the good of the church and the good people in it. Now.
A turning point for me, as it was for Haselberger, who served as chancellor for canonical affairs from 2008 to April 2013, were statements Nienstedt made after he celebrated Mass at a church in Edina last December. This was two months after Haselberger, reportedly rebuffed at every attempt to expose alleged cover-ups or mishandling of abusive and misbehaving priests, contacted Minnesota Public Radio and publicly bared the goings-on.
Nienstedt told reporters that he believed the issue of clergy abuse had been taken care of by the time he became archbishop in 2008 and that he was surprised when the news stories broke. Given that he had indeed reviewed recent clergy abuse files and that a priest was convicted the summer before of abusing two children, Haselberger almost fell out of her chair.
"To see an archbishop, who had recently celebrated Mass and was still vested and holding his crosier, lie to the faithful in such a boldfaced manner was heartbreaking to me," Haselberger wrote in the affidavit, which is part of a clergy abuse civil case filed by St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson on behalf of a former child abuse victim.
"When he said those things, he knew he was lying," Haselberger told me last week. "And he knew that I knew that he was lying. And anybody who was associated with this work and knew him, knew he was lying. That to me is what is so hard about it."
Haselberger's affidavit paints a disturbing picture of church officials acting more like a cabal of corporate schemers or a power-driven political administration run amok than like shepherds of the state's largest Roman Catholic diocese.
Haselberger details how archdiocese officials gave special payments to abusive priests, allowed others to continue in public ministry and failed to notify authorities of abuse allegations in violation of a 2002 churchwide policy.
In the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, Haselberger warned Nienstedt and others of his sexual proclivities and habit of trying to pick up men. Not only were her concerns ignored, Wehmeyer was promoted to pastor of a church on St. Paul's East Side before his conviction for molesting two boys in his parish.
These were not allegations decades old. They were recent. There's the tale of former Vicar General Peter Laird's attempt to declare disabled Father Mike Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis because of his criticisms of Nienstedt in the debate over the proposed marriage amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. Laird resigned soon after Haselberger's concerns were made public.
"You can quote me that I find him unabled," Tegeder said Friday of Nienstedt.
Haselberger also takes aim at Laird's longtime predecessor, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who served as the archdiocese's point person for handling clergy abuse allegations. McDonough, according to Haselberger, took a softer approach on abusive priests and essentially gave lip service to abuse victims. She recalls in astonishment the day he asked to see a document of dismissal, which is essentially a letter formally kicking a cleric out of the priesthood, because he had never seen one.
Nienstedt apparently has an ornery side to him, warning folks not to bother him and sending critical emails to church subordinates that one described as "nastygrams," according to the affidavit.
Haselberger recounts how Laird basically ignored her concerns and refused to read documents about a priest, removed from ministry just this year, who had a sexual attraction to young boys.
"I literally followed Father Laird out of the building one evening with those highlighted documents in my hands, saying that if he didn't have time to read the whole documents, he could at least read the highlighted remarks. He refused," Haselberger wrote.
Laird's reaction, Haselberger noted, was just one example of a "cavalier attitude toward the safety of children."
Cavalier? More like shameful.
A difficult choice
It wasn't easy for Haselberger to turn whistleblower. She's nobody's fool and a woman of faith. She knows of many others within the church who knew what she knew but did not come forward for fear of reprisals.
"I hated that," she said.
She desired and trusted the church hierarchy to do right by children and vulnerable adults. She tried all internal channels to set things right. When those were rebuffed, her conscience ordered her to go outside the wire.
It's interesting how she was characterized by church officials as a "disgruntled employee" after the first stories were published. I would have been disgruntled as well, given what she put up with. That was before thousands of internal church documents, including many ordered released by a judge in a civil suit, corroborated her account of events. This week, this is what church officials said about the affidavit: "Her experience highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children."
Wanted: "No-nonsense kind of guy"
Nienstedt, now the subject of an internal church probe into allegations he may have had inappropriate relationships with seminarians and others, did put in place a task force on church policies and hired a law firm to review all clergy abuse files. Frankly, he should have done that before Haselberger was forced to go public. That's what leaders do.
If he were the CEO of a corporation, he would have been canned already, sent off with a golden parachute. But he is an archbishop in a top-down, male-dominated religious hierarchy that rarely polices itself on anything and is acutely hostile to a probing secular world and any attempts at outside scrutiny. We'll see what he does, though the church problems are endemic and entrenched.
"There are plenty of good priests out there, but they have been drinking the Kool-Aid for so long that they do not even know it," Haselberger said.
I asked Haselberger who or what kind of archbishop she would like to see take over. She would not speculate on names. ""I would say a no-nonsense kind of guy with more or less a pastor's heart."
That sounds good to me.
Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/nycrican.
Related Off-site Links:
Jennifer Haselberger Was Ignored, Bullied Before Blowing Whistle on Archdiocese, Records Show – Jesse Marx (City Pages, July 15, 2014).
MN Archdiocese Wanted to Label Marriage Equality-Supporting Priest ‘Disabled’ – Andy Birkey (TheColu.mn, July 22, 2014).
Betrayed by Silence: How Three Archbishops Hid the Truth – Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio, July 14, 2014).
Has Archbishop Nienstedt's "Shadow" Finally Caught Up With Him? – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, July 1, 2014).
See also the previous PCV post:
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, "Regime Change is Not Enough"