No charges against Twin Cities archdiocese in case of convicted priest

Ramsey, Washington county attorneys declined to prosecute archdiocese leaders accused of failing to report sex abuse, porn.

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.

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  • Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer who represents victims of clergy sex abuse, asked a question of Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith after the officials announced that “we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that anyone with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis violated the law.

  • Timeline in St. Paul

    May 31, 2012: Parent reports suspicion of abuse.

    June 5: In confession, parent tells priest, who suggests telling police. Child tells family member that the Rev. Curtis Weh­meyer abused him.

    June 18-19: Parent says she contacted archdiocese victim advocate Greta Sawyer on June 18 and met with her June 19.

    June 19-20: Sawyer says parent contacted her on June 19 and they met June 20.

    June 20: Deacon John Vomastek sends e-mail to St. Paul police.

    June 21: Vomastek tells Wehmeyer to leave church property. Date of official police report.

    Finding: “It is clear that the archdiocese reported the abuse within 24 hours of receiving the abuse information.”

    Source: Ramsey County attorney’s office

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