Archbishop Nienstedt exits early from Battle Creek, Mich., parish

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Less than a month after arriving to assist at the Battle Creek, Mich., parish of a friend, Archbishop John Nienstedt has decided to leave.

Nienstedt, the former head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese who resigned the position in June amid accusations of mishandled allegations of clergy sexual abuse, offered to assist at St. Philip Roman Catholic Church to help his friend Fr. John Fleckenstein, who has recently experienced health issues. Nienstedt arrived at the parish Jan. 6 and was expected to serve at the parish for six months. His duties included celebrating Masses and visiting the sick and homebound. The Kalamazoo diocese said last week that the archbishop passed its standards for ministry and viewed him “as a priest in good standing," noting he was not appointed or assigned but there on a temporary basis. 

In a letter dated Thursday, a copy of which the Battle Creek Enquirer published on its website, Fleckenstein informed parishioners that Nienstedt had decided to leave the parish “effective immediately.”

“After discussions with the Archbishop conveying the expressed concerns by the faithful people of our community, he offered to withdraw from the diocese and I agreed. Archbishop Nienstedt has a deep concern for the Church, and in light of the unintended discord that his presence was causing, he decided that this would be the best course of action so the Church can remain focused on its mission.” Fleckenstein wrote.

The pastor noted "a very regrettable circumstance" of Nienstedt’s presence in the parish, moving to the diocese Jan. 6, in the rise of anger and fear among its members and the larger community.

In a guest column Sunday in the Enquirer addressed to Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo, Samantha Pearle, a St. Philip parishioner and victim of sexual abuse as a child, said she was "infuriated" by Bradley’s decision to allow Nienstedt into the parish. 

"Victims of sex abuse suffer a pattern of abuse after the sexual abuse, perpetrated by our parents and pastoral leadership, including the inherent message that we will not be protected, that the crime is not heinous, that the rights and reputation of the perpetrator take precedence over the rights and protection of the victim. You will not silently perpetrate the continuation of these crimes in my parish," she said.

Writing in his own letter to the diocese Thursday, Bradley acknowledged that Nienstedt’s presence "has unintentionally brought about a sense of disunity, fear, and hurt to many of you during this brief period of time.

"As your spiritual father and shepherd, I regret that more than words can express. While I made every effort to ensure that there were no canonical restrictions regarding the exercise of Archbishop Nienstedt’s priestly ministry at St. Philip Parish, I should have foreseen the full impact and strong emotional reaction to his presence in the Diocese," he said in the letter, apologizing throughout its two pages.

Bradley thanked those who contacted him about Nienstedt, stating, "All of your concerns made it abundantly clear to me that this situation had to be resolved immediately." He said the diocese takes "great pride" in its zero tolerance policies and regretted "even a momentary questioning of that safety and security" they seek to provide. The bishop added he never believed anyone was in danger and that Nienstedt had passed the proper background checks.

While Nienstedt has not been accused of sexual abuse of minors, he commissioned two years ago an investigation into allegations that he engaged in sexual improprieties with seminarians and other adults. Nienstedt has persistently denied the charges; the report’s findings remain undisclosed.

More: “Archbishop Nienstedt resigns after Twin Cities archdiocese charged with failing children” (June 15, 2015)

In a news story Sunday, the Enquirer reported that during Mass that day Nienstedt addressed the news reports of his arrival in Battle Creek.

"Personally, I believe that some critics did not like the strong stance that I was forced to take in defense of Catholic teachings, particularly the traditional definition of marriage, and I think they would like to punish me for those stands," he said to applause.

Nienstedt expressed hope the reports wouldn’t "jeopardize" his stay at St. Philip and reiterated he didn’t resign because of wrongdoing on his part, but "in order for the local church to have a new beginning" as it went through bankruptcy. The Enquirer report also included comments from members of the community upset with the archbishop’s presence in Battle Creek.

It remains unclear where Nienstedt might head next. Victoria Cessna, executive director of the Kalamazoo secretariat of communications and public affairs, said Nienstedt did not inform the diocese of his next location. The St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese directed questions about Nienstedt’s whereabouts to the archbishop himself.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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