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Continued: Under fire, Archbishop Nienstedt scrambles to respond

‘This case is different’

Nienstedt, who became archbishop in 2008, is known for his hard-line opposition to gay marriage, and more recently as an advocate of immigration reform.

Combating clergy sexual abuse was a priority for his predecessor, former Archbishop Harry Flynn, who helped forge the national bishops’ policies and procedures on the issue during the height of the church’s child abuse scandals a decade ago. Those policies dealt with issues ranging from assisting victims to priest treatment programs to protocol for investigating allegations.

Nienstedt has been following those procedures, which were updated last year, said archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso.

The allegations that Vicar General Rev. Peter Laird withheld computer evidence of child pornography raises the problem to a higher level, said Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Laird wasn’t just another parish priest. He was second in command at the archdiocese, junior only to Nienstedt.

“Catholics and citizens who are inclined to say, ‘Ho hum, another Catholic sex scandal,’ should pay close attention here,’’ Schwiderski said. “This case is different.”

“Because several Catholic officials protected him, a priest who had thousands of images of child porn and might otherwise have spent the last decade in prison won’t go to prison,’’ he added.

The archdiocese, however, said the reports so far are incomplete and leave a “false impression” of events. It contends that while pornographic images were found on the computer that once belonged to a priest, none of it was child pornography. It also argues that Laird did nothing wrong.

“Father Laird has provided great leadership and excellent vision for this local Church, and I am grateful for his dedication and service to the Archdiocese,’’ Nienstedt said in a statement.

Laird will continue working for the archdiocese, including serving at the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood.

List of abusers secret

The pornography allegations were revealed in a St. Paul courtroom last week where another topic looming over the archdiocese was at issue — its decision not to make public a list of 33 priests accused of sexual abuse involving minors.

While archdioceses in Milwaukee, Chicago and Baltimore, among others, have gone public with similar lists, the Twin Cities archdiocese has argued that making the list public would expose the names of innocent priests who have been falsely accused.

The archdiocese argues, however, that it has always considered sexual misconduct a top priority. As evidence, it cites the following actions:

Since 2002, when its current sexual misconduct policies were put in place, the archdiocese has offered training to about 70,000 adult lay workers, conducted 105,000 background checks on clergy, staff and volunteers; and provided over 100,000 children with “age-appropriate lessons to help keep them safe.’’

In the week ahead, the archdiocese is likely to release more information on the mission and membership of its new task force, Accurso said.

“When the policies were adopted in 2002, there was growing confidence that the problem would not continue, or at least that the church would address it quickly,’’ Briel said. “This [week’s allegations] shows more needs to be done.’’

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