Two Twin Cities prosecutors on Wednesday declined to file criminal charges against local Catholic officials in the two most prominent investigations of clergy sexual misconduct cases that have rocked the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In St. Paul, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said his office can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that church officials violated the law requiring them to immediately report allegations against the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former St. Paul priest now in prison for sexually abusing two boys.
And in Washington County, prosecutor Pete Orput said his office is closing its investigation into sexually explicit images found on a discarded computer that had belonged to the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, who served in Mahtomedi.
A parishioner who discovered the downloaded images gave the hard drive to the archdiocese in 2004. Church officials didn’t report the situation to police, but Orput said he’s closing the case because none of the images appears to fit the statutory definition of “pornographic work involving a minor.”
Disappointed advocates for the victims of clergy sexual abuse said the archdiocese was “let off the hook,” and St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson blasted the authorities for “defective analysis.”
“These are the two cases that screamed out for prosecution of archdiocesan officials,” said Anderson, who represents Wehmeyer’s victims in litigation.
Choi and St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith expressed ongoing concern about the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases and said that related investigations are pending. Smith said he will keep at least two officers assigned full time to cases involving the archdiocese.
Choi said, “I continue to be troubled by the church’s reporting practices.” He called on past victims to contact police about any past settlement with the archdiocese, but he declined to say why the information was needed.
The two investigations followed allegations by Archbishop John Nienstedt’s former canonical chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April and told authorities that the church hierarchy failed to report child endangerment and possible child pornography to law enforcement.
The archdiocese released a statement saying that it “is grateful to the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey and Washington County attorneys’ offices for their thorough investigation and clearing of the archdiocese.”
“The archdiocese continues to cooperate with all civil authorities related to any investigation of allegations of sexual abuse,” the statement said.
Smith said an investigation of a recent complaint that Nienstedt touched a boy’s buttocks in 2009 “is close to being concluded.” The alleged incident, which Nienstedt has denied, happened during a photo session after a confirmation ceremony.
Jim Accurso, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Nienstedt will stay away from public ministry until the investigation concludes but continues to carry out administrative and governing roles. “He has also been on spiritual retreat and has devoted considerable time to daily prayer,” Accurso said.
Focus on timetable
Choi said his office focused on the mandatory reporting law in the Wehmeyer case, concluding that officials of the archdiocese “did not fail to comply” with a deadline that gave them 24 hours to contact police once an archdiocesan employee learned of the sex abuse allegation in a formal interview of one of the victims. The issue was clouded by the fact that the family first reported the abuse to a priest during confession, giving him an exemption from immediately reporting it to police.
The county attorney’s office said the 24-hour clock didn’t start until the boy was interviewed. At 5:58 p.m. on the day of the interview, Deacon John Vomastek, a former St. Paul police supervisor, sent an e-mail to a police commander disclosing the allegation against Wehmeyer.
Anderson said the archdiocese sat on the allegations for more than a day before the boy was interviewed. He criticized Choi’s office for not pursuing “obstruction-of-justice” charges against Vomastek and the Rev. Kevin McDonough, a former vicar general who alerted Wehmeyer that he was going to be arrested.
In the 28 hours between Wehmeyer’s meeting with McDonough and his arrest, Wehmeyer moved his camper from Blessed Sacrament Church to a rental lot and had time to remove evidence, police records indicate.
In addition, police records show that McDonough took Wehmeyer’s computer and it wasn’t handed over to police until four days later. It was later found to contain child pornography, and Wehmeyer was convicted on related charges.
“Were my investigators happy?” Police Chief Smith said. “No, they weren’t.”
Choi said the archdiocese’s actions did not negatively affect his prosecution of Wehmeyer, which resulted in a five-year prison term.
The prosecutor said there is no “obstruction-of-justice” statute that would apply, but Minnesota laws relating to “aiding an offender” could still be considered.
The “aiding-the-offender statute is one that is on the table,” Choi said.
In his letter closing the Shelley case, Orput said that three investigators and a prosecutor with experience in child pornography violations ratified a finding by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that none of the images on the priest’s discarded computer was “those of known images of child pornography.”
The archdiocese did not reveal any details about Shelley’s future role in the church. Through an attorney, the priest previously has denied any involvement with viewing or possessing child porn.
“It’s too early to say,” Accurso said.
Observers weigh in
In a statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) voiced its displeasure and said authorities need to be more aggressive and creative.
“It’s meaningless for law enforcement officials to say they’re ‘troubled by’ or ‘unhappy about’ the corrupt practices of Catholic officials,” said Frank Meuers, a leader of the state chapter of SNAP. “The verbal displeasure of police and prosecutors, in response to media questions, doesn’t stop or deter crimes. The actions of police and prosecutors stop and deter crimes.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Defense League took issue with Choi’s statement. “The church has made serious mistakes in the past handling abuse cases and has acknowledged that,” David Strom said. “Now, when it is doing exactly the right thing, the authorities make vague accusations that they are ‘troubled’ by actions that they won’t specify and refuse to acknowledge that the church is acting properly.”