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For Minn. Catholics, troubling new abuse scandal

ST. PAUL — When Jennifer Haselberger uncovered what looked like recent, troubling sexual behavior by several Minnesota priests — a stash of possible child pornography on one priest’s computer hard drive, another with a well-documented history of sexual compulsion still leading a parish — she tried to ring alarm bells at the top ranks of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.

But Haselberger, who resigned last April as the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs, said she felt ignored. She has since gone public with concerns that Minnesota’s archbishop and top deputies failed to truly reform how they handle problem priests. ‘‘I do not believe it can be said that the archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect’’ children and young people, Haselberger said last week in a statement.

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Unlike many of the abuse revelations that have rocked the US Catholic Church, the allegations Haselberger brought to light aren’t decades old. They all happened after 2002, when US bishops held a high-profile meeting in Dallas and approved policy changes meant to quickly remove predatory priests from parishes and restore the church’s tattered credibility with millions of Catholics.

‘‘They weren’t just going to sweep stuff under the rug. They weren’t going to move him around,’’ said Joe Ternus, who in 2004 found what he called ‘‘a ridiculous amount of pornography’’ on the hard drive of a computer he purchased at a rummage sale and that had belonged to Jonathan Shelley, a parish priest. Ternus, whose parents attended Shelley’s church, turned the hard drive over to church officials.

Haselberger’s allegations have the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese playing defense. Last week, Archbishop John Nienstedt accepted the hasty resignation of his top-ranking deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, who wrote in his resignation letter that he hoped to ‘‘repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse.’’ Nienstedt also convened what he said would be an independent task force to examine the way church officials have handled misconduct allegations.

But church leaders weren’t initially so eager to deal with the cases. Minnesota Public Radio News obtained a letter from Nienstedt to Cardinal William Levada, the now-retired Vatican official who ran the office that oversees errant priests, spelling out how an archdiocese investigator found pornographic images on Shelley’s hard drive that were at least ‘‘borderline illegal.’’

Haselberger told the news station she was later told Nienstedt’s letter was never actually sent to the Vatican.

The archdiocese declined to make Nienstedt or Laird available for interviews. Spokesman Jim Accurso said media coverage of the recent allegations ‘‘leave a false impression about the commitment of the archdiocese to identify and address sexual misconduct by priests.’’

Tom Wieser, a lawyer for the archdiocese, has called Haselberger ‘‘a disgruntled former employee.’’ She worked at the archdiocese from 2008 to last April, when she resigned because of concerns about the way sexual abuse allegations were handled.

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