Francis appoints Hebda to replace Nienstedt in St. Paul-Minneapolis

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has appointed a new leader for a Catholic archdiocese in the American Midwest where mismanagement of clergy sexual abuse cases led to the dual early resignations of the former archbishop and an auxiliary bishop last June.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda will now lead the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, canceling his former appointment to take over the archdiocese of Newark, N.J., in July.

Hebda, a Pennsylvania native, had been serving as the apostolic administrator of the Minnesota archdiocese since Archbishop John Nienstedt’s resignation in June 2015.

Nienstedt resigned alongside Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché ten days after prosecutors in his archdiocese brought criminal charges against the archdiocese "for its failure to protect children."

Hebda’s new appointment comes as a bit of a surprise. He had previously been appointed as the coadjutor archbishop in Newark, meaning he would have automatically replaced current Newark Archbishop John Myers as head of the archdiocese at his retirement, expected to come when he turns 75 in July.

In a statement Thursday morning, Hebda said he was “humbled by this expression of Pope Francis’s confidence and honored to serve this Archdiocese with its rich history.”

The St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese said Hebda would hold a brief press conference at 9:00 a.m. local time Thursday. The archdiocese also said the archbishop’s installation Mass has been already scheduled for Friday, May 13.

Appointment of a new archbishop comes four months after the Midwestern archdiocese agreed to be subject to judicial oversight by local authorities for the three years to certify compliance with a series of provisions aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse.

That agreement concluded the civil aspect of charges brought against the archdiocese over its handling of abuse claims. A criminal case, which includes six misdemeanor charges, remains ongoing.

The criminal charges stem from the archdiocese’s handling of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who is in jail serving a five-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2012 to three felony counts of criminal sexual misconduct with two minors and 17 felony counts of possession of child pornography.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January 2015, citing specifically "the scourge of sexual abuse of minors." At the time of the filing for Chapter 11 reorganization, it estimated assets between $10 million and $50 million, liabilities between $50 million and $100 million, and listed between 200 and 1,000 creditors.

Wide complaints about Nienstedt's mishandling of sexual abuse by clergy trace to April 2013, when then-archdiocesan chancellor of canonical affairs Jennifer Haselberger resigned her position and came public, saying she had discovered unreported allegations of clergy sexual abuse and lapses in investigations.

The following news reports of Haselberger's claims led the archbishop in October 2013 to appoint a commission to do an independent lay review of the archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Among the "serious shortcomings" uncovered the following April by the task force of seven lay members commissioned by the archdiocese was "a flawed organizational structure with little oversight and accountability" that employed outdated reporting policies and restricted crucial information from relevant decision-makers and boards.

Hebda, aged 56, briefly worked as a lawyer before entering the seminary in Pittsburgh. In that diocese, he served as the bishop’s Master of Ceremonies, as a director of campus ministry and on the priest personnel board.

The future archbishop worked in Rome from 1996-2009 at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts before being named the bishop of Gaylord, Mich. His appointment as coadjutor bishop in Newark, now canceled, came in September 2013.

Hebda’s new Minnesota appointment leaves open the question of who will replace Newark’s Myers, who has come under criticism for his own handling of clergy sexual abuse and for his spending on his own retirement residence.

Questions of Myers’ handling of abuse center on the fact that a priest convicted of criminal sexual contact with a minor was serving in the archdiocese as a youth minister. The Newark archdiocese has said it was unaware of the priest’s activities.

Myers has also been criticized for expanding his home to some 7,500 square feet at a cost close to one million dollars.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. Staff writer Brian Roewe contributed to this report.]

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