Wake-up call for Catholic hierarchs

By Mark Silk

July 21, 2014

Jennifer Haselberger’s affidavit ought to be sounding alarms throughout the length and breadth of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. What the former chancellor of the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota has done is to call into question the efficacy of the procedures the American church has put into place to assure the faithful and society at large that it is successfully dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by priests. 

The 109-page document is the first insider’s account of the handling of reports of clergy abuse by diocesan officials in the years following passage of the  Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, initially approved at the bishops’ June, 2002 meeting in Dallas. No doubt, there are facts asserted by Haselbeger that might not constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. As she herself notes on a number of occasions, her recollection is at odds with what others have sworn to.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to dismiss her portrait of an archdiocesan culture bent on working around the Charter, on keeping information from the civil authorities to the extent possible—all the while putting up a show of caring deeply for the victims. Anyone who doubts this portrait should listen to the hour-long documentary on Minnesota Public Radio, which integrates what Haselberger has to say with statements of a wide range of church leaders, victims and their families, and legal experts.

Where the buck stops in Minnesota is with Archbishop John Nienstedt, who inherited a corrupt regime and perpetuated it. Nienstedt, who is himself being investigated for sexual misconduct, has provided more than ample evidence that he is unworthy of serving in his present position.

But it is folly to imagine that contriving a way for him to step aside will make things right. For what Jennifer Haselberger and Minnesota Public Radio have done is far more than expose the hypocritical machinations of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They have provided reason to doubt all statements from ecclesiastical authorities that sexual abuse in the church is being handled properly.

Will the American bishops be roused from their slumber? Given their silence in the face of the criminal conviction of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City for failing to report a case of sexual abuse, it is hard to believe that anything other than action by the Vatican can do the trick. And given the apparent resistance of papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, it will take the new papal commission on sexual abuse to force recognition that unless and until the church forthrightly condemns and punishes those who cover-up sexual abuse, the scandal will continue to fester.

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