The sudden move by the vicar general came after allegations of a priest’s possession of child pornography surfaced Thursday in a St. Paul courtroom.
A top lieutenant of Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned suddenly Thursday, saying his departure was necessary following an explosive court development that suggested the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis may have covered up a priest’s possession of child pornography.
The Rev. Peter Laird had served as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the archdiocese, making him junior only to Nienstedt in the hierarchy.
His resignation came shortly after allegations emerged in a St. Paul court that church officials knew a priest had been in possession of child pornography but continued to assign him to parish duties that brought him into contact with children. The allegations were contained in a St. Paul police report made public Thursday in Ramsey County District Court.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a leading plaintiffs’ lawyer in pursuing cases against the archdiocese over child abuse, said the police report implies that the archdiocese destroyed evidence. The police report says that the archdiocese seized the evidence about the child pornography and kept it in a vault. When another diocesan official, Jennifer Haselberger, discovered the evidence, Laird told her to put it back in the vault, she told police.
Haselberger, who has since resigned, brought the matter to police attention. When the police went to the vault, the evidence of child pornography that they were told would be there was missing.
The archdiocese has been assailed by abuse victims and their advocates for years over the transfers of problem priests to new churches without parishioners being warned or past abuses revealed. The allegations have mirrored those in dioceses across the country in what has become an ongoing and, in some dioceses, financially crippling crisis for the American Catholic church.
Laird is now the highest official within the Twin Cities diocese to step down as a result of such allegations.
He was appointed to the vicar general position, which serves as an assistant to Nienstedt in administration of the archdiocese, in 2009.
He was not available for comment Thursday, but the archdiocese said that Laird’s resignation, which became effective immediately, “was his decision alone. He did nothing improper.”
In a written statement, Laird said he is hopeful that his decision “can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse. I know the leadership, the dedicated staff and my fellow priests in the Archdiocese are sincerely committed to proactively addressing these difficult issues.”
The pornography allegations made public Thursday date to 2003. But most of the police report focuses on events that have taken place in the last few months after officers were contacted by Haselberger, who held the rank of chancellor at the diocese and said she discovered the hidden evidence that Laird told her to return to the vault.
Haselberger also played a major role in a recent investigation of another priest by Minnesota Public Radio. The archdiocese won praise for quickly removing the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer of his duties when he was accused last year by a parishioner of sexually abusing children.
But apparently the archdiocese knew for more than a decade that Wehmeyer had issues with sexual compulsion yet kept him in the ministry and failed to warn parishioners, according to the MPR report, which cited Haselberger and dozens of other interviews and documents.
Wehmeyer is now serving a five-year prison term for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.
Sealed list of priests
Thursday’s revelation about a possible child pornography cover-up came in an indirect way.
For years, Anderson has been pursuing the release of a list of priests suspected of sex abuse that was assembled by the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona.
Anderson got a copy of the list in 2009, but was barred by a court order from releasing it after church lawyers argued that the reputations of innocent priests who had been the targets of unsubstantiated accusations were at stake.
Anderson was back in court Thursday arguing for the list’s release when the archdiocese’s lawyers introduced the police report, which they said showed that investigators had looked into a child pornography allegation but chose not to file charges.