Church lawyer turned whistleblower named 'person of the year'

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2013 - 9:50 PM

National Catholic publication honors former archdiocesan lawyer.

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Jennifer Haselberger spoke out against Archbishop John Nienstedt and his handling of evidence in potential child abuse cases involving archdiocesan priests.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson • Minnesota Public Radio via Associated Press,

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The whistleblower who set off a storm of controversy over clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been named “person of the year” by a national Catholic newspaper.

Jennifer Haselberger, 39, of St. Paul was honored Monday in an editorial by the National Catholic Reporter for her courage in speaking out against Archbishop John Nienstedt and his handling of evidence in potential child abuse cases involving archdiocesan priests.

“Thank God for the courage of abuse survivors and the families of victims who will not let our bishops and leaders forget the abuse and their complicity in it,” the editorial said. “Thank God for activists who stand with survivors. But most of all, thank God for one very special class of people: the priests and church personnel who do stand up to their leaders and cry out for justice. … Finally, thank God for Jennifer Haselberger.”

Haselberger, a one-time chancellor of canonical affairs for the archdiocese, emerged this fall as a key figure in the intensifying public scrutiny of the archdiocese’s handling of the clergy sex abuse cases.

She went public with her concerns after finding what she believed was child pornography on a priest’s discarded computer and later failing to persuade church leaders to address the issue and other potential sexual misconduct involving clergy.

She resigned in protest in April after “repeatedly” taking her concerns about “unreported allegations of clergy sex abuse and lapses in investigations” to Nienstedt, who “ignored and rebuffed them,” the editorial said.

“I was not prepared for this disregard for the requirements of canon law, nor for what appeared to be an equal disregard for civil law, especially in regard to the obligation to report to the civil authorities,” Haselberger told the National Catholic Reporter, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo.

Since October, the scandal has toppled Nienstedt’s vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, and prompted abrupt resignations from the University of St. Thomas board by former Archbishop Harry Flynn and his former top deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough. Both have been criticized for not responding appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse by priests. Nienstedt removed himself from ministry this month pending an investigation after he was accused of touching a boy’s buttocks during a confirmation photo session.

The editorial also praised the work of two priests who “sacrificed promising ecclesiastical careers” by standing up for victims of abuse and speaking out against those “who would cover it up.”

The priests are Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk who now works as a victims advocate for the St. Paul law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates, and the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Virginia-based canon lawyer who has testified on behalf of victims in abuse cases in civil courts.

Haselberger’s honor comes as the Diocese of Duluth prepares to release Tuesday the names of 17 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct with children. The publishing of the names comes several weeks after a lawsuit was filed seeking the release of that information.

This month, following a Ramsey County judge’s order, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona released the names of 46 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, lists that were largely compiled a decade ago.

The order also stipulated that the archdiocese release by Jan. 6 a second list of priests identified over the past decade.

Attorneys for the archdiocese have since filed a letter with the judge asking him to clarify the criteria for the release of the additional names. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday in Ramsey County District Court.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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