Officials cite new information for the move, which could put the archbishop under deeper scrutiny.
St. Paul police have reopened a criminal investigation into whether a Catholic priest downloaded child pornography, a move that could put Archbishop John Nienstedt and others under new scrutiny for their handling of the case.
New information includes recently leaked internal church documents that describe the computer images as “borderline illegal’’ and indicate church officials were concerned about possible criminal prosecution. In addition, the Hugo parishioner who originally discovered the porn on the priest’s desktop computer recently turned over a copy of the images that he forgot he had.
Also swirling around the case are concerns raised by Nienstedt’s former canonical chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April and told authorities the church hierarchy failed to report child endangerment and child pornography to law enforcement.
“We have new information, and there are more questions than we have answers,’’ police spokesman Howie Padilla said Tuesday during a widely attended news conference at police headquarters. “We are investigating allegations of criminal behavior.’’
Nienstedt did not respond to e-mailed questions from reporters. His office issued a statement saying, “We will cooperate with any investigation, as we have cooperated since the outset.’’
Padilla said police reopened the case after meeting with officials in the Ramsey County attorney’s office. The case had been idle since St. Paul police reviewed three discs containing images from the priest’s hard drive and found no child porn. But the investigating officer, Sgt. William Gillet, has noted in a report that the priest’s computer had been destroyed long ago that and he couldn’t be certain that the discs reviewed by police contained the same content that was originally reviewed by a forensics expert retained by the archdiocese. Padilla said Gillet is still on the case.
The priest’s attorney, Paul Engh, has acknowledged his client downloaded adult pornography, but not child porn. Engh said Tuesday that reopening the investigation won’t lead to any new finding of child porn because “the data is the data’’ and police have seen all that was on the hard drive.
Archbishop wrote to Rome
A recently leaked document written by Nienstedt to a cardinal in Rome said the priest’s computer contained pornographic images, “possibly of minors under the age of fourteen.’’ The document also said the priest admitted internally to destroying a second laptop that he used after the parishioner at Mahtomedi’s Church of St. Jude of the Lake found pornography on the first computer.
Nienstedt’s May 29, 2012, letter to Cardinal William Levada sought guidance from him and noted that an investigator for the archdiocese “concluded that many of the images were borderline illegal due to the apparent age of those photographed.”
The letter noted that Nienstedt’s staff was concerned that the priest’s file “could expose the Archdiocese, as well as myself, to criminal prosecution.” But a second leaked document from an insider at the archdiocese advised Nienstedt there was no reason to pursue the question of child sexual abuse with the priest and it was not a reasonable question whether he possessed child pornography, a federal offense. That memo was written to Nienstedt on Jan. 27, 2013, from the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who was vicar general in the archdiocese when the internal porn investigation started.
Both documents were made public this week by Minnesota Public Radio, which also quoted Haselberger as saying that Nienstedt failed to call police after she copied pornographic images that had been found on the priest’s computer onto a document and sent them to the archbishop. Some of the images, she told MPR, appeared to show boys engaged in sexual acts.
Padilla was asked Tuesday whether police will interview Nienstedt over Haselberger’s allegations and seek search warrants to obtain the archdiocese’s files on offending priests.
“You have to look and you have to see,’’ Padilla said.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents scores of clergy abuse victims in Minnesota and other states, said the reopening of the priest pornography case should put Nienstedt and the archdiocese under review for possible law violations in the categories of obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, possession of child porn, child endangerment and failure to report sexual abuse of children.
“There’s never been an archbishop more in the line of fire than Archbishop Nienstedt is right now,’’ Anderson said.
Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, said the office hasn’t made any decisions yet over whether to seek search warrants. “We don’t have a case presented to us yet,’’ Gerhardstein said. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said his office is also looking at the case.
Two issues in the criminal investigation involve the legal definition of child pornography and statutes of limitation for a case that started in 2004. Asked whether St. Paul police would seek help from federal agents or other law enforcement agencies, Padilla said, “We are going to be as complete as possible.’’
Haselberger could not be reached for comment. She issued a statement Saturday calling on Nienstedt to permit an external investigation of all clergy files kept by the archdiocese in a vault. She said Nienstedt should then make public the list of sex offender priests and anyone else who could pose a threat to children.
Star Tribune staff writer Dan Browning contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213