Jennifer Haselberger was five years into her "dream job" as a canon lawyer for the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis when she alerted law enforcement officials last spring to what she believed was child pornography on a priest's discarded computer.

Haselberger soon resigned, saying the church hierarchy ignored her entreaties to notify civil authorities. Today she is a central figure in an investigation that has engulfed the archdiocese anew in the searing issue of clergy sex abuse.

St. Paul police have said they saw no child porn among the more than 2,000 images they reviewed, leading a lawyer for the archdiocese to characterize Haselberger as "imprudent and unsophisticated."

But those who know the 38-year-old whistleblower say she is anything but that. They describe Haselberger as savvy and fearless.

"Whoever said that about her is either a barefaced liar or they've never met Jennifer Haselberger. There's nothing unsophisticated about that woman at all," said Larry Frost, a retired Army intelligence operative turned lawyer who squared off with her in mediation over a client's employment dispute with the church.

"My sense of her was, this was a solid, believing Catholic who had a moral compass."

Haselberger was traveling in Asia last week and unavailable for an interview.

People who have known Haselberger since she was a teenager agree that she is a formidable intellect. Some said they were not surprised that she became the rare church insider to inspire a clergy misconduct investigation.

Although Haselberger grew up in a family with deep roots in the church, her father said she didn't show much interest in religion until after she enrolled as an English major in what was then the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.

The Haselbergers belonged to St. Odilia's parish in Shore­view. Two siblings of her mother, Joanne, took religious vows. The Rev. John Maslowski had been pastor of the Church of St. Casimir in St. Paul, which ministered to local Polish immigrants, but he died before Jennifer was born. Sister Mary Joanne Maslowski, a member of the Felician Sisters in Chicago, maintained a close relationship with the family.

Jennifer's father, Ken Haselberger, said his family dressed up and attended St. Odilia's every Sunday, then went out to breakfast. But after Jennifer was confirmed, he said, she declared that she'd had enough and was never going to church again. "Of course, she kept going," he added.

Outspoken at St. Catherine's

Ken Haselberger became estranged from his family for a number of years after a bitter divorce in 1990, when Jennifer was a freshman at Mounds View High School. He remembers her as "extremely bright — always at the top of her class kind of thing," and as a "tremendous athlete" who competed in cross country, nordic skiing and track.

"She was very competitive and very hardworking, both in school and in athletics," her father said.

Haselberger's sophomore year in college seems to mark a turning point for her. She told a reporter for a campus newspaper in 2009 that she had been counseled by Sister Ann Thomasine Sampson, then 82, that a person must act on her beliefs.

Haselberger, opposed to the death penalty, began writing to a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola and eventually became his spiritual adviser and a regular visitor to the prison.

Anne Maloney, an outspoken Catholic feminist who heads the philosophy department at what is now St. Catherine University, said she became Haselberger's mentor after she added philosophy as a second major in her junior year.

"She was one of the smartest students I've ever had. The world was her oyster," Maloney recalled.

She said Haselberger loved children and entered college wanting to be a kindergarten teacher. Maloney and her husband, Stephen Heaney, a philosophy professor at the University of St. Thomas, hired Haselberger as a nanny for their children. "They adored her," Maloney said.

The first inkling she got that Haselberger was a committed Catholic came in the wake of a controversy that involved then-Archbishop Harry Flynn. Though she says she has forgotten what it was about, a flurry of news reports from the period say that he had initially agreed to say mass in St. Paul for a meeting of a group opposed to abortion, but backed out after learning that its founder had made what many considered anti-Semitic statements.

Maloney was identified as a Flynn supporter, and Haselberger told her that her grandmother applauded her for supporting him. Shortly after that, Maloney said, Haselberger asked for her counsel in restarting the Students for Life club on campus.

Campus news reported tensions between an abortion opposition group under Haselberger's leadership and Women Oriented Women, a lesbian group, in 1999. Hasselberger, a senior, jousted with critics in opinion pieces.

Maloney said Haselberger was willing to take risks to get things done. She even got Flynn to say mass at Our Lady of Victory Chapel on campus. "She was fearless," Maloney said. "She knew what she believed."

Stephanie Klenk, who worked in the alumnae office at the time, didn't share Haselberger's views. But she remembers Haselberger as a well-spoken "force on campus" who was "willing to go to the media at any point."

"On the one hand she was a pain, and on the other hand, we are very proud of her," Klenk said.

World travels

Haselberger went on to get a doctorate in philosophy from the University of London, then pursued more graduate work at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Her father said she won an academic award there that came with some money, and she used it to begin seeing the world. Her church biography notes that she has lived in four countries, including China and Africa, and has visited at least 50.

In 2002, while still pursuing her doctorate, Haselberger wrote an article for the American Feminist about systematic employment and education discrimination against women in Canada, Europe, Asia, Russia and the U.S. She concluded the article by noting that although the conditions in America differ from those in places like Afghanistan, much work remains to be done.

She went on to obtain a licentiate in canon law from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Her thesis was titled "Sources of legitimization of the Rent-A-Priest movement. An examination into the issue of 'married' priests administering the sacraments." She stirred a minor controversy by concluding that "the faithful have the right to approach 'suspended' priests for the sacraments" and that so-called Rent-A-Priests were acting within church law by ministering to them.

Scott Bergstrom, a cousin who lives in Denver, said he saw her at a funeral about that time. He recalled that she had developed "an acute interest in women's and children's issues." She was trying to resolve feminism with Catholicism, he said, "and that's a bit of an intellectual journey, I think."

Bergstrom said his cousin could do it if anyone could.

"She was a very tough girl growing up," he said. "Very strong, very willful. And she seems to me the kind of person that would, if she were confronted with a very difficult moral choice, she would have no difficulty making the right decision regardless of its personal cost to her own career."

Pursuing 'safe environment'

After earning her degree in canon law, Haselberger went to work as chancellor and director of the tribunal for the Diocese of Crookston, where she also was director of "Safe Environment." Bishop Victor H. Balke appointed her to investigate allegations that a priest named Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul had sexually abused a girl. Haselberger concluded the allegations had substance, and Jeyapaul returned to India before criminal charges were filed in 2006. He has denied the allegations and had been in active ministry in India working with children for years, according to reports. He was arrested in March 2012 and his extradition is pending.

Haselberger went to work for the Fargo diocese in 2006. She became the bishop's delegate in canon law — a position usually filled by priests or nuns — in December 2007. She took the same job in the Twin Cities in October 2008.

Two years later, Haselberger spoke at St. Catherine University and told a school publication that she'd made a big find in the archdiocese archives — an autographed photo of the novelist Oscar Wilde addressed to Archbishop John Ireland.

Ireland met Wilde, an Irish writer who was imprisoned on sodomy charges in the late 1800s, while traveling after his retirement. Haselberger said she hung the picture in her office.

Several years later she made another discovery in a church vault while she was reviewing files on a Mahtomedi priest seeking a new post. That's when she ran across the alleged pornography that had been copied from one of the priest's computers in 2004. Haselberger tried to persuade her superiors to report the matter to police, but they said the matter had been investigated before and told her to return the materials to the vault.

Haselberger reported the incident to the Ramsey County Attorney's office and resigned in April, then spoke publicly about the issue with reporters from Minnesota Public Radio. St. Paul police initially had closed the case without filing charges. But they reopened it last week after the matter became public and new evidence surfaced. Prosecutors in Ramsey and Washington counties say they will consider criminal charges if the investigation warrants them.

"She has either done a very stupid thing or a very brave thing, and I'd like to believe it's the latter," said Steve Cribari, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who is believed to be the first American lay person to obtain his licentiate in canon law, in 1977. But as a former federal public defender, he cautioned that there are more allegations against priests that are unfounded than one might think.

"We're in a kind of reverse inquisition, aren't we, in a lot of this,'' Cribari said. "If the hierarchy doesn't demonstrate it is pure, clean and absolutely altruistically motivated, then we all … vilify them. And I'm not sure that's right," Cribari said. "This is still the United States and you are still innocent until proven guilty in our courts."

'Set loose a … lioness'

Ken Haselberger said he patched things up with Jennifer after she returned to the United States and agreed to talk so people would understand his daughter's act of conscience.

When Jennifer went to Crookston, he said, she was told to provide a safe environment for parishioners, "which meant getting rid of priests that should not be priests."

"So the archdiocese set loose a lion — no, a lioness — and trained her to do the job," he said.

In the end, he said, his daughter was torn between the church she loves and the job she loved.

"She trained for this for so many years, and now she probably will never have another job within the Catholic church," he said ruefully.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493