Computer Owned by Former Parish Priest Catalyst for Archdiocese/media Firestorm
By Deb Barnes
October 15, 2013
|Rev. Jon Shelley (center) was a frequent fixture at the Hugo farmers market, held for years in the parking lot at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Proceeds from snack sales supported the Hugo Good Neighbors Food Shelf.|
HUGO — Area Catholics are waiting to hear whether child pornography charges will be filed against a priest who led parishioners at St. John the Baptist in Hugo and St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi.
Earlier this month Rev. Jonathan Shelley denied any illegal activity and released a statement this weekend thanking former parishioners for their concern and asking for continued prayers on his behalf.
St. Paul Police were investigating a report that pornography possibly including child pornography, was found on a computer that once belonged to Shelley.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput told The Citizen Monday the statute of limitations on possession of child pornography is three years. Because the computer hard drive hasn’t been in Washington County for the better part of a decade, he said, at this point his office only would be involved if other information led to “other avenues we could investigate.”
The computer was the property of Rev. Shelley at the time he was pastor at St. Jude of the Lake Church. It was turned over to the archdiocese by Hugo resident and St. Jude parishioner Joe Ternus in 2004. His father, a Mahtomedi resident, had acquired the computer after it was left in St. Jude’s empty rectory, scheduled for demolition. The house had formerly belonged to the Ternus family. After Shelley said he didn’t want it, Ternus accepted it.
He said he found a dialup link to an adult website on the desktop and “thousands of images.” Ternus then offered the computer and its hard drive to the archdiocese, but said his phone conversation with a church representative was “rude to the point of being bullying.”
He told The Citizen, “I felt maybe I should back it [the hard drive] up then and make sure it was handled correctly before I lost my chance to do the right thing with it.”
A letter to parishioners was then sent by the St. Jude parish board stating that Rev. Shelley was temporarily removed from his pastoral duties because of the presence of “inappropriate materials” on his computer.
For the better part of a decade, that is where the matter rested.
According to interviews conducted by Minnesota Public Radio in recent weeks with the archdiocese’s former canonical attorney, Jennifer Haselberger, the attorney’s recent efforts to alert Archbishop John Nienstedt to the contents of a box in the archdiocese Summit Avenue basement were ignored. The box contained materials relating to a decade-old archdiocese investigation of Shelley’s computer that employed the services of a private computer forensics expert. Haselberger told the archbishop that the box contained what she termed “borderline illegal” images stored on CDs; some of those images, she said, may have portrayed children. The archdiocese did not call police, according to Haselberger.
Haselberger resigned in April and called St. Paul Police. That investigation was closed Oct. 3 for lack of evidence after police failed to find any images of child pornography on CDs provided by the archdiocese.
The following day, Ternus came forward after he remembered he made copies of portions of the computer’s hard drive before turning the computer over to archdiocese officials. This new evidence prompted St. Paul Police to reopen the investigation.
Ternus told The Citizen the evidence church officials turned over to police earlier this year wasn’t what he gave the archdiocese in 2004. “I gave them the physical hard drive out of that PC,” he said. “They did not give that to police. They gave them a stack of CDs.”
The attention paid to the matter has come on the heels of another highly publicized case involving a St. Paul priest whose taste for pornography allegedly was kept quiet by church officials. Last year Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys and is now serving a five-year term in prison.
On whether the archdiocese is qualified to serve as its own expert on the matter of what constitutes child pornography, Orput said, “They are not.”
After his assignment in Mahtomedi, Shelley, now 52, served at St. Stephen’s in Minneapolis, his home town, until his assignment as parish administrator at St. John the Baptist from late 2008 to June 2012. He made concerted efforts to forge friendships with other pastors in Hugo and often penned seasonal religious columns with those religious leaders for this newspaper.
He was a positive leader on behalf of the less fortunate in the community, longtime parishioner Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron said last week. “[Father Shelley] was active in the [Hugo Good Neighbors] food shelf,” he said, “and he provided strong leadership for the parish.”
Miron said he was heartened by the number of St. Genevieve parishioners at Mass the previous Sunday. “[I] was pleased to see the church full after the news was out. I don’t think it has diminished people’s faith at all or willingness to be part of the parish,” he said. “Our faith is tested from time to time.”
About recent developments, Miron said, “I don’t know the details and how much is true or not true. I hope if charges are filed, the archdiocese would cooperate to the full extent they can.”
Ternus said he hopes pressure on the archdiocese continues so that the truth of the matter is revealed. “I’d like to have some resolution on this,” he said. “If [the archdiocese] has been telling the truth all along, I’d be fine with that. But I don’t have that feeling.
“I still have my faith, but my faith in the Catholic Church is not what it was.”
Deb Barnes is managing editor of Press Publications; Debra Neutkens is editor of The Citizen.