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.

According to their report, the police found three computer discs holding adult pornography, which is legal. But the computer from which the discs were taken was missing.

Haselberger told police that the then-vicar general, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, said that when he saw the images on the computer, he believed them to be child pornography and ordered that all evidence, including the computer, be secured in a vault.

Haselberger also told police that she had seen a report from a private investigator, Richard Setter & Associates, which the archdiocese hired to examine the computer and its contents.

According to her, the report said that a forensic computer expert had examined the computer and found “thousands of images,” including some of a young boy performing oral sex on another male.

The police requested a copy of the computer report but were turned down by the archdiocese. As for the computer, “We were told that was destroyed,” the police report says.

Priest adamantly denies it

The priest who was accused of possessing the child pornography declined to comment Thursday night, referring questions to his attorney, Paul Engh.

“The good father adamantly denies ever viewing or downloading anything that would relate to child pornography,” Engh said.

Anderson contends the case involves at least three violations of the law.

“It’s illegal to view or possess child pornography,” he said. “It’s a violation of the law to keep evidence and not bring it to the attention of law enforcement. And it was violation of the law to destroy the computer.”

Anderson also accused the archdiocese of moral indiscretions. “This goes back to 2003. They’ve been sheltering this priest for 10 years, letting him continue in assignments that bring him in contact with children,” he said.

Replacement in works

In a letter last week to Catholics in the archdiocese, Nienstedt said the diocese’s standard “is zero tolerance for child abuse by priests and absolute accountability. … As the leader of this local Church, I bear a special responsibility for the actions of the priests in our Archdiocese. I am deeply committed to do all in my power so that no one is harmed by priestly misconduct.”

The archdiocese said the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, who is serving as pastor of the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan, will take over the vicar’s job, but he won’t assume the post until his current position is filled.

Lachowitzer, 57, was ordained in 1990. Before his current parish position, which he took in 2002, he served at the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater and the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood. Until he can take over his new duties, the auxiliary bishop, the Rev. Lee Piche, who preceded Laird in the job, will handle his duties.

The archdiocese outlined no specific new job for Laird, saying only that he “will continue to serve in a variety of roles within the archdiocese.”