The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been rocked in recent weeks by revelations from a top-level whistle-blower. The former official says church leaders covered up numerous cases of sexual misconduct by priests and even made special payments to pedophiles.
The scandal is notable not only because of the abuse but also because it happened in an archdiocese that claimed to be a national leader in dealing with the issue.
To understand what’s happening now, it helps to go back to 2002, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops faced a crisis brought on by its failure to remove abusive priests from ministry.
‘I Wanted Them To Do The Right Thing’
Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis emerged as a national leader on the issue, urging bishops at a now-historic conference in Dallas to root out what he called a cancer in the church.
“This is a defining moment for us this morning as bishops,” he said at the time.
Back in Minnesota, Flynn assured the faithful that the worst problems lay elsewhere and this archdiocese wasn’t going to cover up abuse.
Flynn retired in 2008 and was replaced by Archbishop John Nienstedt, who hired a young canon lawyer named Jennifer Haselberger to oversee church records.
As priests came up for promotion, Haselberger searched church files for any disciplinary problems. Digging deeper, she found separate stored files detailing how some priests had long histories of sexual addiction and abuse. She warned Nienstedt about what she’d learned, she says.
“I wanted them to do the right thing,” Haselberger says. “I wanted them to take allegations seriously. I wanted them to get offending priests out of ministry. I wanted them to be disclosing to the police and working with law enforcement to make sure that our churches were safe for children, and the vulnerable and the elderly.”
She then discovered that some abusive priests got special payments, like the Rev. Robert Kapoun, who for 14 years received nearly $1,000 a month on top of his pension.
Kapoun retired in the late ’90s after admitting in court that he sexually abused boys. He now lives in a half-million-dollar lake home. Because of his history of abuse, he’s supposed to be carefully monitored.
Kapoun says he doesn’t have much contact with the church these days. He says he does meet occasionally with priests to discuss “news and happenings in the world, and so on.”
Haselberger says that for her, one of the last straws came when a priest was arrested for and convicted of sexually abusing children.
Several years earlier, Haselberger had examined the lengthy file of that priest, Curtis Wehmeyer. Documents showed he had approached young men for sex in a bookstore.
Haselberger says she gave the information to Nienstedt. Soon after, he appointed Wehmeyer pastor of two parishes.
A top church deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, says he didn’t realize Wehmeyer was abusing children until after his arrest.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing in this man’s behavior known to us would have convinced any reasonable person that he was likely to harm kids,” McDonough says.
Lawsuits And Calls For A Resignation
Haselberger resigned in protest in April, but she says she felt burdened by what she knew.
“Because I was still having to look people in the face who I knew that I had information that they needed,” she says. “And the fact that I had this and they didn’t, and no one was going to be telling them, was really difficult.”
So Haselberger shared the church’s secrets with Minnesota Public Radio News in a series of interviews this fall.
Nienstedt has declined to be interviewed on tape. In an emailed response to questions, he denied breaking any laws or covering up abuse. Earlier this month, his top deputy stepped down as the crisis widened.
Victims of abuse are preparing to file lawsuits now allowed under a new state law as the archdiocese braces for what could be a massive financial blow.
Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest who warned bishops in the ’80s of a looming abuse crisis, says it’s remarkable the revelations are coming from an insider.
“What has been happening, it seems to me, in St. Paul has been almost a chain reaction,” he says. “There’s something systemic; it’s not accidental.”
Doyle says the reckoning comes as prosecutors seem increasingly willing to file criminal charges against church leaders.
Nienstedt has responded to the scandal by creating a task force to review church policies.
But some parishioners, and even priests here, are calling for him to resign. They say they feel betrayed by church leaders who led them to believe that their archdiocese remained a safe place for children.