Priest reportedly approached young men at Barnes & Noble, asked, “Are you fucking horny?”
In the summer of 2012, Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest at Parish of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, was charged with sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.
Wehmeyer’s arrest came after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reported allegations against him to police, and the church spun the story as one where they took quick and decisive action against an alleged pedophile priest. But if an in-depth MPR report can be believed, that was anything but the case.
According to MPR, reports of sexual misconduct involving Wehmeyer reached archdiocese officials as early as 2004, three years after he became a priest. In the spring of 2011, a high-ranking Catholic official wrote a memo to a colleague about how they should deal with the allegations.
Regarding an incident where Wehmeyer allegedly approached a man in a Borders bookstore and engaged in “suggestive conversation,” Father Kevin McDonough, the archdiocese’s “delegate for a safe environment,” wrote that it was his belief Wehmeyer “was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by ‘playing with fire.'”
“This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace. I agree with Father Curtis that disclosure there would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!),” McDonough continued, concluding that his recommendation “is that we encourage (or even require) Father Wehmeyer to disclose his pattern of self-destructive behavior to a small circle of trusted friends.”
Seven years earlier, McDonough, then working as the archdiocese’s vicar general, received his first report about Wehmeyer behaving inappropriately in a Twin Cities bookstore. MPR’s report details that incident:
[In May 2004] Wehmeyer approached two young men ages 19 and 20 for sex at a Barnes & Noble store in Roseville. “It was really strange, the way he came on to us,” one of the men, Andy Chapeau, said in an interview with MPR News.
Wehmeyer leaned close to one of the men and said, “Are you f–horny right now?”
A Catholic parishioner heard about the incident and brought it to McDonough’s attention shortly after it occurred, but the church didn’t take action. From MPR:
McDonough met with the concerned parishioner and one of the men approached by Wehmeyer at the bookstore. He assured them that Wehmeyer was receiving counseling. The parishioner wasn’t satisfied with McDonough’s answers, and he worried that he might hear about Wehmeyer in the news years later. When that happened, the parishioner wrote a furious letter to Nienstedt, the archbishop.
Despite numerous allegations of inappropriate conduct, Wehmeyer managed to keep his name out of the police blotter until June 2012, when he was charged with repeatedly abusing a 12-year-old boy his 14-year-old brother. One of the boys said Wehmeyer offered him cigarettes and beer, and showed him pornography. After he was abused, one of the brothers later abused both of his sisters. That abuse was reported to the boys’ mother by one of the sisters.
MPR explains how the cycle of abuse was traced back to the priest:
The mother didn’t understand how the boy could’ve learned about sex already. She asked him if he’d been watching pornography.
Yes, the boy said. Wehmeyer showed it to him.
Wehmeyer pleaded guilty and is currently serving five years in prison.
For Minnesota Catholics, troubling new abuse scandal
By Amy Forliti of Associated Press
Unlike other abuse revelations that have rocked theJennifer Haselberger, the allegations in Minnesota aren’t decades old or involve perpetrators long retired or dead.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — 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, despite repeated promises to do so.
“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 to the media.
Unlike many of the abuse revelations that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, the allegations Haselberger brought to light aren’t decades old or involve perpetrators long retired or dead. They all happened after 2002, when U.S. bishops held a high-profile meeting in Dallas and approved broad 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 church rummage sale and that had belonged to Jonathan Shelley, a parish priest.
Ternus, whose parents and sister attended Shelley’s church, turned the hard drive over to archdiocesan officials.
“I was given assurances that this wasn’t going to happen, but that’s exactly what happened,” Ternus said.
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 leaders officials have handled accusations of sexual misconduct by priests.
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 who an archdiocese investigator found pornographic images on Shelley’s hard drive that were at least “borderline illegal, because of the youthful looking male images.”
“My staff has expressed concern the fact that CD-ROMs containing the images remain in the cleric’s personnel file could expose the archdiocese, as well as myself, to criminal prosecution,” Nienstedt wrote to Levada.
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.” He said eliminating any form of abuse is the “highest priority” for the archdiocese.
Tom Wieser, an attorney 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.
According to a police report, Haselberger found computer discs and a white three-ring binder in the vault last year that appeared to be evidence from a 2004 internal investigation into the images. A police report said Haselberger told Laird what she found, and was instructed to “put them back in the vault.”
Shelley’s lawyer said there was no child pornography on the disc. And an attorney for the archdiocese said a computer forensics expert also found no evidence to support Haselberger’s allegations. Police also found no evidence of child pornography, but acknowledged they didn’t have the computer itself.
Police received new information from Ternus on Friday, and on Tuesday afternoon they announced they were reopening the child pornography investigation. In his initial report, lead investigator Sgt. William Gillet openly wondered whether the archdiocese turned over all the pertinent evidence.
In the other case at issue, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was allowed to remain in ministry despite ample evidence that archdiocesan leaders knew of sexual misconduct. He is now in prison for sexually abusing two children and possessing child pornography.
Haselberger told The Associated Press in an email Tuesday that she raised concerns with her superiors in 2008, and again last year.
“Having worked on similar cases in other dioceses, I was completely unprepared for the responses I received in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis,” she wrote.
The new policies formulated by bishops in 2002 were specifically designed to quickly root out problem priests. One church leader instrumental in that process was Harry Flynn, Nienstedt’s predecessor in St. Paul-Minneapolis. Flynn is implicated in some of the decisions that Haselberger brought to light; he could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“Since 2002, there was a real sea change, and I believe most bishops got it,” said Nicholas Cafardi, a former church canon lawyer who was involved in drawing up the new policies. Now a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Cafardi said he would be personally shocked to learn that top officials in any diocese sheltered potential abusers since then.
Cafardi cautioned that he’s not familiar with the new allegations, and noted in particular that finding a priest in possession of legal pornography raises thorny questions for his supervisors in the church. But if it’s proven that church leaders failed to live up to the 2002 policies, he said, it would damage the church’s efforts to move beyond past scandals.
“Any diocese that’s not following that makes people question the credibility of the policy,” he said. “That then harms the entire church in the U.S., because people will think if this bishop does it, then is another bishop doing it?”