Archdiocese attorney says no evidence of child porn found

Washington County is looking at the priest’s activities as far back as 1995. A victims’ advocate called for an investigation of the archdiocese leadership.

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Jennifer Haselberger, seen in a Sept. 10, 2013, photo, was canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis until her resignation in April.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson / MPR, Associated Press

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An attorney for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said Friday that neither police investigators nor a computer forensics expert found evidence to support allegations by a former archdiocesan employee that one of its priests had viewed child pornography on his computer.

Tom Wieser, an attorney for the archdiocese, said some “false inferences” have been drawn from police reports that seem to imply that child pornography was found on the priest’s old hard drive.

The St. Paul police, Ramsey County and Washington County all indicated they would consider new investigations should evidence supporting the allegation — which surfaced anew Thursday — prove compelling. Meanwhile, the Hugo resident who first discovered pornography on the computer and reported it nearly a decade ago said he had kept a copy of what he found and provided it to police.

The former archdiocese employee, Jennifer Haselberger, 38, said in a deposition last month that she resigned from her job as chancellor for canonical affairs because top church officials failed to pursue her allegations last fall. Haselberger said child pornography had been copied from the priest’s old hard drive and stored on discs in a vault.

In a deposition for an unrelated case last month, Haselberger said that she reported the allegations to authorities and quit. She could not be reached for comment Friday and her attorney did not respond to messages.

The archdiocese released a statement Friday that didn’t address the specific case but said, “It is critical to understand that our standard is zero tolerance for sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult and absolute accountability.”

Records show that St. Paul police investigated Haselberger’s allegations from at least February through July. They obtained three discs from the archdiocese that contained thousands of images. One disc was made by a state computer forensics expert who was hired through a private investigations firm. The other two were made by the Hugo man who first discovered the pornography and reported it to the archdiocese a decade ago.

After reviewing thousands of images on the discs, police closed their investigation without referring charges, saying they found no child pornography.

But some of the police reports suggested that the computer forensics expert found at least one image of a prepubescent boy performing oral sex on another male. That information appears to have come from a written report by the investigative firm. Police never actually obtained that report, however. It appears that officers were summarizing some of Haselberger’s conclusions as factual.

Police reports indicated that Wieser, the archdiocese’s lawyer, declined to share a copy of the forensics report last spring when he turned over the discs, but left open the possibility that he would do so. Wieser said no one from law enforcement ever contacted him to discuss it. He said the archdiocese is prepared to clarify the matter with law enforcement.

Paul Engh, an attorney representing the suspect priest, said he’s read the entire computer forensics report.

“There’s porn,” Engh acknowledged. “There’s just not child porn.”

The Star Tribune has not identified the priest because he has not been charged with a crime.

Engh predicted that his client would not be charged. He said his client, who’s currently on leave because of the investigation, wants to return to an active post.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said Friday that he has assigned two attorneys in his office “to take a hard look” at potential criminal charges against the priest related to the years he spent in Hugo, Mahtomedi, Stillwater and Bayport from 1995 to 2012.

“There are no sacred institutions when it comes to criminal activity,” Orput said.

No one claiming to be a victim has come forward in Washington County, he said, and attorneys would need to establish evidence of child pornography.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has asked his staff to give St. Paul police documents delivered to him last week by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a prominent victims’ advocate in clergy-abuse cases. Spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said that a meeting has been scheduled soon to discuss the possibility of reopening the police investigation.

Joe Ternus, the Hugo man who reported the pornography on the computer some 10 years ago, on Friday turned over to St. Paul police another copy he had made of the computer files that included the pornography. He said he had forgotten until recently that he had kept the copy.

“I burned it and put it in my safe” because the archdiocesan investigator he dealt with years ago “was very gruff, almost to the point of bullying,” Ternus said. “Ostensibly, it should be the same as what [police] got from the archdiocese.”

Police spokesman Howie Padilla said that investigators will examine the new information to see if it warrants reopening the case.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called the case “dreadfully depressing and painfully familiar at the same time.” He said the archdiocese may have acted “even more deceitfully and recklessly” than Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted last year of failing to tell police about child pornography found on a priest’s computer until five months had elapsed.

“Had any one of a number of top church staffers simply done the right thing and called 911, I’ll bet [the Twin Cities priest] would have been in prison for the last decade and still be there, safely away from kids,” Clohessy said.

Anderson called for a joint state and federal investigation into the archdiocesan hierarchy on suspicion of obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and other crimes. “We have seen enough evidence, both documentary and otherwise, that demonstrate to us that criminal charges need to be brought against a number of top officials, including the archbishop [John Nienstedt], [the Revs.] Kevin McDonough and [Peter] Laird. And search warrants and subpoenas should be issued if they haven’t already been,” Anderson said.

Laird, who resigned Thursday from his No. 2 position at the archdiocese, said in a written statement that he is hopeful that his decision “can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse.”

The archdiocese said Thursday that Laird’s resignation, which became effective immediately, “was his decision alone. He did nothing improper.”

Laird had served since 2009 as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the archdiocese, making him junior only to Nienstedt.

The archdiocese said Laird “will continue to serve in a variety of roles within the archdiocese.”

McDonough was vicar general and moderator of the curia from 1991 to 2008.

The porn allegations involving the priest date to September 2004. Ternus said the archdiocese was tearing down the home where the accused priest had been living and asked his father if he’d like the priest’s old desktop computer. Ternus said his mom asked him to check out the computer. When it booted up, he said he saw an icon for a dial-up connection to a porn website.

He searched the computer and found what appeared to be thousands of sexual images and some videos of “an extreme nature” stored in cached files. He said he shut down the computer after reviewing about a half-dozen files.

“Nothing that I saw looked like child porn,” Ternus said.

Even so, he reported what he found to the archdiocese and said McDonough told him the matter would be dealt with properly. A short time later, he said, an investigator came out and took the computer’s hard drive.

Nothing in police files indicate where the hard drive is located, or if it still exists. But investigators reviewed all three discs reportedly made by Ternus and the forensics expert.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493



 

  • If you have information about the investigation regarding pornography on a computer owned by a priest in the archdiocese, contact reporter Tony Kennedy at 612-673-4213 or tony.kennedy@startribune.com.
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