Church whistleblower opens dirty dish of Catholic priests' sex abuse
After she made her First Communion as a little girl, Jennifer Haselberger was distraught to learn the Catholic church had no saint Jennifer, and she had no saint to call her own. So her mom opened up a book and pointed to Joan of Arc.
“There. That’s yours,” she said.
Years later, Haselberger is in a fight of her own after going public with claims that archdiocese leaders in St. Paul mishandled allegations of clergy sexual misconduct. Turns out, Haselberger may have borrowed a little bravery from the headstrong French heroine she has long admired.
Haselberger, a former canon lawyer for the archdiocese, took on leaders of the church she loves after she felt her warnings about troubled priests were being ignored, setting off a firestorm in the local church.
“If a child was hurt, Jennie would do everything within her power to stop that. The lengths that she went to were probably heroic,” said Anne Maloney, Haselberger’s former college adviser.
Haselberger resigned in April after she says Archbishop John Nienstedt and others did not respond appropriately when she found pornography, including images of possible child pornography, on computer disks that once belonged to a priest who was still in ministry. This came after she says church leaders ignored her repeated warnings dating back to 2008 about another priest who went on to molest two boys in his camper in 2010.
“I can never undo what happened to those boys, and that hangs incredibly heavy on me,” Haselberger told The Associated Press. “I didn’t do enough.”
Haselberger said she resigned because church leaders weren’t listening, and she went to authorities and to the media because they wouldn’t change. Since then, Nienstedt’s top deputy has stepped down, and the church set up a task force to examine its policies and responses to sexual misconduct allegations. Police are also investigating.
“I came to the conclusion that I was going to do whatever it took, that this was not acceptable … and let the chips fall where they may,” she said.
Haselberger has gone to law enforcement about two priests, and she says she had brought concerns about others to church leaders. She declined to elaborate, but said she expects more details will emerge.
Jim Accurso, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said he could not comment on Haselberger or her resignation because it is a personnel matter. Accurso has said the information portrayed in the media is incomplete because it has been presented without context.
Tom Doyle, founder of the Catholic Whistleblowers group, said it is still rare - and risky - for someone from within the church to come forward and challenge bishops, who he likened to absolute rulers.
“Everyone I know of who has been a whistleblower has sacrificed their career,” said Doyle.
Haselberger, a Minnesota Wild fan and equestrienne, grew up in a Polish-Catholic family with a great uncle and a great aunt who both went into religious life. While she never considered that herself, she calls the church her “home,” and still stands behind it and the many clergy she respects and considers heroes.
While an undergrad at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. She also became a leader of a student group that opposed abortion and advocated for valuing human life, Maloney said.
“I never once saw Jennie back down from a conversation or dispute,” Maloney said. “She believed being anti-abortion was the best way to be a feminist.”
Inspired by a religious sister, she also began writing to a man on death row in Angola, La. She is against capital punishment and became his spiritual director. The man’s death sentence was vacated when Hurricane Katrina destroyed prison records, but she said the experience taught her about striking a balance between caring for offenders and protecting the innocent, something she says could also apply to accused clergy.
“I despise the acts that they committed, but I don’t hate them,” she said.
Haselberger earned her doctorate of philosophy at the University of London. While waiting to defend her thesis, she began taking classes at Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, where she earned her licentiate in canon law and graduated with highest honors in 2004.
While living in a prestigious academic community in London, Haselberger organized a lecture about a woman who went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated atrocities committed during the apartheid era, to seek amnesty not for violence or any other crimes - but for her apathy in apartheid-controlled South Africa. Her example inspired Haselberger.
“That really resonated with me at the time … it’s such a phenomenal example of personal accountability,” Haselberger said.
When Haselberger began working for the archdiocese in 2008, Nienstedt called her “studious” and “thoughtful.”
That contrasts with statements made after her allegations. Archdiocese attorney Tom Wieser said in a recent court hearing that Haselberger was a “disgruntled former employee” who was unauthorized to investigate allegations of child pornography but did so anyway, something he called “unsophisticated and imprudent.” According to a court transcript, Wieser said Haselberger decided for herself that the images were illegal, and went to authorities, who found no evidence of child pornography. St. Paul Police have since reopened their investigation.
Now outside the chancery walls, Haselberger is a consultant, available to help victims of abuse, or others, navigate the ins and outs of canon law.
She knows she’ll likely never work for the church again, and her eyes get watery when she talks about how much she would have loved serving in the church of Pope Francis. But she said her only regret is not speaking out sooner.
“I certainly always attempted to make my points using facts and reason and to do so respectfully,” she said. “But I would hope that people would say that ‘She was incredibly passionate about this.’ Because I would be disappointed in myself if I wasn’t.”