MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The top deputy at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis resigned Thursday amid fresh criticism of how top church officials handled cases of priests accused of sexual abuse.
The archdiocese announced the Rev. Peter Laird's resignation as vicar general in a statement on its website. His departure follows a report by Minnesota Public Radio News last week documenting how church leaders including Laird knew about a long record of sexual misconduct by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer but promoted him anyway. Wehmeyer is now in prison for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.
"I am hopeful my decision to step aside at this time, along with the formation of a new task force can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse," Laird said in the statement.
The MPR report brought renewed criticism of the archdiocese from groups including SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who accuse the church of covering up clergy abuse.
The archdiocese statement didn't mention the MPR report or give any details about the task force other than to say details about the task force would be announced in the coming week.
Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said Laird's resignation had nothing to do with the report or the Wehmeyer case.
"Father Laird's decision to resign was unexpected and was his decision alone," Accurso said. "He did nothing wrong. This is an opportunity for a fresh start in leadership."
"Somebody had to take a fall and they made a decision it would be the vicar general," said Jeff Anderson, an attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
SNAP director David Clohessy issued a statement calling Laird's resignation "pure public relations. It's a desperate move to reassure justifiably outraged Catholics. But it's not real reform."
Laird had been vicar general since 2009. The statement said he will remain in various roles including as temporary administrator at the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood. The Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, pastor of the Church of Saint John Neumann in Eagan, will succeed Laird as vicar general.
Nienstedt said the "highest priority" for him and Lachowitzer will be to ensure that the task force "can operate with full integrity and ensure that no stone is left unturned to prevent harm to anyone due to clergy misconduct."
Anderson on Thursday provided AP with a copy of a St. Paul police report discussed in court earlier in the day that mentions Laird in connection with a pornography investigation involving another priest. The report describes an archdiocese employee notifying police in February after discovering a file box in the rectory vault that contained three computer discs and a report by a forensic computer expert hired by the archdiocese. The expert's report stated the discs contained images of child pornography copied from the priest's old computer, apparently around 2003. The police report also said the whereabouts of the computer were unknown.
The employee's name was redacted, but Anderson said it was a former canon lawyer for the Archdiocese, Jennifer Haselberger. Anderson said she confirmed it was her in a sworn deposition that he filed Thursday in another case.
The police report said that when she brought the file box items to Laird's attention, "she was instructed 'to put them back in the vault.'" It said she "was bothered by this and the way she saw the church addressing the matter, finding it to be troubling both professionally and morally." A home listing for Haselberger, who spoke to MPR about her concerns with the archdiocese's handling of the Wehmeyer case, was disconnected Thursday.